The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan

Book: The Night Country

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Type of Book: Literary fiction, fiction, novel, ghost story

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s a wholly modern ghost story and part of the selection of books that I reread every few years or so. I do my best to read this book at least every other Halloween.

Availability: The edition I own is the 2004 Bloomsbury edition, which isn’t easily obtained, but the novel itself is still in print and you can get a copy here:

Comments: Stewart O’Nan is a pretty mainstream author and I doubt he’ll come up too often on this site in the future, but I couldn’t let another Halloween go by without discussing The Night Country. O’Nan is not a particularly odd writer and his stories can be remarkably prosaic but he is a master of characterization and his characters never fail to appeal to me in a very direct way. Mr OTC keeps me in middle class splendor, but I have some very working class roots (as does Mr OTC, for that matter). O’Nan captures perfectly the life of the man who clocks in and works an hourly wage. He depicts relationships in a tender manner that lacks sentimentality. His novel Last Night at the Lobster was a revelation to me – I discussed it on my old and now defunct site, I Read Everything, and that book alone cements O’Nan as one of my favorite mainstream writers.

But it was a bonus read because The Night Country was already in my to-be-reread-until-I-die rotation. I’m going to force myself to write as concise a discussion as possible because I don’t want to run the risk of spoiling this novel for anyone because I think just about everyone who reads here will like this book, and I hope you all read it after this review. That’s going to be hard because this book causes me to want to go on at length and explore every line. Let’s see how succinct I can be while honoring my desire to rave.

Here’s a quick synopsis: A year prior on Halloween, a car with five teenagers caught the attention of a patrol officer and tried to outrun him. The officer gave chase and the car crashed, killing three of the teenagers inside, gravely injuring one, while one walked away with few injuries. Marco, Danielle and Toe (real name Christopher) died. Marco is narrating this book while Danielle and Toe serve as a sort of third-person Greek chorus, chiming in with opinions and dark humor when they feel the need. Kyle suffered brain damage that rendered him child-like, and his mother is trying to hold on to hope now that she has a son who will be mentally a grade-school boy the rest of his life. Tim, who sustained no harm in the wreck, is groping through as he grimly plans to recreate that terrible night as best he can this Halloween. Brooks, the cop who gave chase in dangerous conditions, has lost everything – the esteem of his fellow officers, his wife left him and he is being forced out of his home because he can no longer afford it. Brooks senses that Tim is not going to let the first anniversary of the accident pass without some dark action but has become so uneven at performing his job that the reader has no idea how (and if) he can help Tim come out the other side of Halloween.

This book is a traditional ghost story, in a way, in that the dead come back to comment on the living, but this is a ghost story full of meta. The ghosts know they are ghosts and at times find the whole thing very tiresome but they have no choice in the matter – when the living invoke their memory, they are summoned and they cannot refuse. The three dead teenagers find themselves being pulled all over town the Halloween the year after their death and sometimes it’s miserable and sad, but sometimes the teens snark on the nature of being a ghost, invoking Dickens’ Marley, moaning and rattling metaphorical chains. But the teenagers know the fallout their deaths have caused Tim and Brooks. They also know how their deaths affect Kyle’s mother because she’s been faced with a death of her own – the black-jean-and-leather-jacket-wearing son she raised, the rebellious boy who listened to death metal, is now a shuffling, clumsy teenager who needs supervision constantly. He can’t even tie shoelaces anymore and must use velcro sneakers. He has a part time job at a supermarket that he maintains because he and Tim work together and Tim supervises him closely. But Kyle also must ride the special education bus, is gaining weight at a rapid clip and it can be said the old version of him died in that car Halloween a year ago. But his mother knows three families lost their child and feels that she must feel grateful because her child lived, even though she knows, really, that he died, too.

Tim especially feels disembodied in his life. Danielle was his girlfriend and because she wanted to sit in his lap that night the two of them moved to the backseat. Had he remained in the front seat, he would have died. Instead Danielle was thrown from the car and Tim doesn’t have a single visible scar remaining of that night. But his psychic scars tell him in no uncertain terms that he and Kyle should have died that night and is on a mission to set right that cosmic oversight. He’s going through the motions and no one but Brooks seems to understand that Tim is not okay, that he is not handling all of this well, that he needs far more from his parents than they realize, but Brooks has issues of his own. His entire life has fallen apart because he blames himself for what happened that night and so do many others.

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Songs for the Missing

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Why Did I Read This Book: Because I loved O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, as well as his book, The Night Country.

Availability: Published by Penguin Books in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I love Stewart O’Nan’s writing. I admit that no matter what, O’Nan will have a special place in my book-heart because of his book, The Night Country. I read it the first time in October of 2008, during a time when I was completely crazy, made mad from drugs given to me for a misdiagnosed condition. I was hearing voices in my head and the book had a specific message for me that I don’t know if I could explain now that I am sane, relatively speaking. I reread it in October 2009 and it was a completely different book for me yet still so amazing that I suspect that I will read it again and again every October. I probably won’t ever discuss it here because when a book is that special, you don’t really feel the need to discuss it with anyone and you certainly can’t countenance anyone saying, “Well, it was… okay, I guess.” Special books for me need to remain undiscussed even as I recommend everyone read the book and the author.

So with that disclaimer out of the way, it’s clear I am an unabashed fan of O’Nan’s writing. Yet I pride myself on my brutal honesty when I discuss books. So it has to be said that Songs for the Missing didn’t hit my love meter the way O’Nan’s other books have. There are many reasons for this and the one that is clearest for me is that the one character I related to the most went missing. Simple as that. As enjoyable as this book was to read in parts, I did not ever have a deep connection to any of the characters in the book. Despite the fact that I think this is a good-enough book, putting it heads above many other books I have read recently, I wanted to loved it and couldn’t.

Songs for the Missing begins with Kim Larsen as she hangs out with her friends and prepares to leave for college. She goes to the lake with her friends one afternoon and leaves to make her shift at a convenience store and is never seen again. The book deals with how her friends, boyfriend, mother, father and sister deal with her disappearance. The police investigation, what to tell the police and what not to tell them, the pleas to the media, the desperate fight to keep Kim relevant in the news as her case grows colder and colder. I suspect the latter was another reason why I did not love this book as much as I wanted to love it: O’Nan replicates all too well the frustration, lingering desperation and, frankly, boredom that goes along with a loved one going missing. The crushing work, the tiresome waiting, the complete lack of resolution for years are hard to make interesting.

Still, despite the fact that this book at times fell flat with me, O’Nan still does an amazing job of doing what he does best: showing the tangled complexities of human relationships. He does this best with Lindsay, Kim’s younger sister, a girl very different than her athletic, engaging, missing sister. Shy, bookish, awkward, Kim’s disappearance causes Lindsay discomfort above and beyond the obvious. Lindsay is suddenly on display, her every action subject to a scrutiny that makes retreating into the safety of her room a guilt-laden experience.

It was always the problem: without Kim she would be free to be her own person, but she would also be picked on or ignored because that person was weak.

In bed, with the light out, she resolved to be strong tomorrow, as if she could pay her back that way. “If it was you,” her father has said, “do you think Kim would just be sitting in her room?” From now on, she would do whatever she had to, whatever she could. For once Linsday would save her.

You want to throttle her father for saying that to her, for laying a trip like that on her, but he is just as clueless as Lindsay is. All he knows is that his eldest teen daughter is missing and her sister is hiding from everyone, creating a problem. There is nothing he can do, there is nothing Lindsay can so, and the reader knows it in a way that anyone actually experiencing this sort of situation cannot. And that frustration should have made me engage more with this book than I did but it didn’t. This frustration was not a tension one sees in a well plotted mystery but rather the boredom one feels when one is treading water.

The book is filled with awkwardness. A mother engaging experts in keeping a missing child in the media and selecting “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as the song for people to request on the radio, a song her missing daughter would have loathed. A haggard father spending weeks searching in the place where his daughter’s car is found, never sleeping. A family gathering with an elderly grandmother in a nursing home. Friends keeping information to themselves about Kim’s ties to a drug dealer. Lindsay developing a crush on her missing sister’s boyfriend. A family developing a sense of normalcy only to have the rug yanked out from under them. Yet through all this expert telling of the intensity and complexity of human emotion, there was sense of something missing, a golden cord to hold it all together. It seems very on the nose, a book about the missing that is missing something, but there you are.

But there were some definable moments wherein I did not like the content, moments I can put my finger on. O’Nan gets pop culture wrong in this book. I marvel at how he handles blue collar and working class culture but elements of this particular book seemed yanked from a hazy 1970s memory of youth, not a youth of five or even ten years ago. It’s hard to explain but the sense of being in a completely different time is there. The passages of Kim interacting with her friends just did not ring true. Worse, it is hard to tell if the cultural misconceptions that O’Nan puts out there were meant to serve as an example of the chasm between a character’s sense and reality. Take this, for example, when Kim’s mother is telling a police officer yet again about the clothes Kim was wearing when she went missing:

He asked twice about her shirt, a baby blue Old Navy tee she’d bought for herself. Fran remembered saying she could buy a lifetime supply at Wal-Mart for that, and Kim giving her a put-upon look – sensible, out-of-touch Mom.

I have no idea who is wrong here: Fran or O’Nan. Yes, mothers say dumb things like that but Fran seems clear that she thinks an Old Navy t-shirt is quite expensive. It seems as if Fran saw the price tag and seems to think that Kim spent an arm and a leg on a t-shirt at a notoriously cheap place to buy clothes. But nothing from Old Navy is that expensive compared to clothing from WalMart and I walked away from this scene having no idea what it was O’Nan wanted me to know about Fran. I mostly took away that O’Nan is himself unaware of what some things must cost. There are far too many moments like this wherein I read chunks of information and have no idea what I was meant to understand about the characters involved.

I think this novel failed for me so profoundly because, in a sense, O’Nan created too well the tedium, the long, boring horror that comes along with searching for the missing, but also because the most interesting person in the book is removed from the picture. The story of friends moving on after Kim disappears, of how her family copes, simply isn’t interesting. Kim’s complex nature makes a caricature out of her awkward sister, underachiever boyfriend, over-involved mother. You want more of Kim and you can’t have her. I remember how much I loved being in Manny’s industrious and conflicted mind in Last Night at the Lobster and how haunted I was by tortured Tim in The Night Country and I never developed that connected feeling reading this book. It was… just not as fine as O’Nan’s other books.

It feels odd to have good book disappoint me. I can’t wholly recommend this book but I can say you could definitely and probably will read worse than this novel. But I don’t sense this book will be an annual book for me, one I reread when the season is right.

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Title: Last Night at the Lobster

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Type of Book: Fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I read O’Nan’s The Night Country twice and loved it immoderately. When I saw Last Night at the Lobster on clearance, I snapped it up. I prefer not to buy remaindered books as I like for authors to make money off the books I buy, but I was a very impecunious reader for about a year. But given the blue-collar atmosphere described in the book, I’m sure O’Nan would understand.

Availability: Published by Viking, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This book was the perfect palate cleanser after reading Mary Gordon’s Pearl. Word economy, action, people behaving in a manner that made sense… I discuss a comparison between the two IN A COMPLETELY UNRELATED REVIEW over at I Read Odd Books, making it clear that perhaps I identify more with working class characters. This book was the perfect hot dog and beer after the salty steak and red wine offered in Pearl.

Last Night at the Lobster
is a day in the life of Manny DeLeon, the manager of a Red Lobster that is being closed down days before Christmas. Manny’s life is that of a hard-working man, a man who does a very difficult job (god bless and overtip every person who ever waits in you in a restaurant) and wants to do it well. He is a man who hates to see others lose their job when the restaurant closes, even employees whose work ethic may not merit such loyalty.

But Manny is not a caricature of a virtuous Working Everyman, for despite his work ethic, loyalty and his sense of pride in a job well-done, Manny is all too human. He has a pregnant girlfriend but also carried on an affair with a coworker, Jacquie, a girl who also had a boyfriend. When the Red Lobster closed, Manny was offered an assistant manager job at an Olive Garden and can take five employees with him and wanted to take Jacquie. But Jacquie has a better sense of reality – Manny has a pregnant girlfriend and she can see that their love affair has no future. But Manny pines for her anyway, service-sector star-crossed lovers that they are.

It is very easy to get lost in a book of fantasy, or a book about the rich. Intoxicating other worlds have fueled certain genres for a long while and Danielle Steel would not be one of the best selling authors of all time if tales of money, sex, and intrigue did not serve as excellent escapism from the daily grind. Even Stephen King, who writes of blue collar people more than most authors, has them often set against a backdrop of horror or intensity that makes you forget that his characters don’t have a key to the executive washroom.

Last Night at the Lobster is also no epic tale of poverty, with no Steinbeckian-overtones to give extra-special nobility to Manny. Manny is just an American guy who works his ass off, whose personal life is messy, who is probably going to marry a woman he doesn’t love because she is carrying his child, and who will never be rich, famous or otherwise renown. So why care about him? Well, for me, it is because the stories of people like Manny so seldom get told outside of Barbara Ehrenreich exposés. I like reading about working class people. So often, people who are not rich in novels, who occupy a sort of underclass like Manny, are criminals or addicts or both. I like reading about people whose lives and work I can relate to so easily but whose stories are not told with sentimentality about the “working man.” Whose stories are important and amazing in their own right without needing the sanctification of people romanticizing what it is like to be young, hardworking and broke.

But if you are not me, if you could care less about the working man who brings you your meals when you eat at chain restaurants, then you should read this book because of the writing. The characterization is spot on and even wrestling with salting the snow seems interesting. As Manny hopes and prays his staff comes in for their last day of work and struggles with a terrible snow storm, the minutia of his day is never boring.