Where Night Stops
by Douglas Light
Rare Bird Books, 2018
“Is it possible that an event becomes inevitable only after the fact, only after the disaster has struck and the damage is done?” asks the main character in Douglas Light's lean, peppery new novel Where Night Stops. “It's obvious to me now that something awful had been building for the last four years.”
The narrator – we never convincingly learn his name – is only twenty-two years old. Four years earlier, he was involved in a car crash that killed his parents and unmoored his life in the small town of Windstop, Iowa. In hollow bitterness, he burns down the family home; he's thinking about the insurance, but so is the town sheriff, who gives him $75 and tells him to get out of town. The 18-year-old gets on a bus and heads west, arriving in Seattle flat broke and entering a homeless shelter, where he meets an enigmatic man who calls himself Ray Ray, who eventually connects him with a shadowy criminal figure named Higgles. The narrator begins running errands for this man – shady, clearly illegal errands that escalate in scope and complexity, a quickly-deepening vortex that soon has him traveling to other countries and coming closer and closer to life-changing violence.
There's a mystery woman involved as well, and readers familiar with the kind of neo-noir that Light is nervy enough to attempt in these pages will know to expect that every single thing, every last little element mentioned in the book will end up being tightly, fatally connected. This is one of the many genetic absurdities of the noir experiment, and its successful execution requires an author who can braid those absurdities with absolute sincerity without blinking.
On these terms, Where Night Stops is completely successful. Light loads his young antihero with unthinkable tragedy and sets him wandering in a world suffused with eroticism and freebooting evil. He gradually comes to be bringing in some good money, but at the cost of living in a series of crappy hotel rooms waiting for obscure instructions before moving on – a quasi-career extension of his brutal uprooting, which Light carefully balances with glimpses of the young man's inner isolation, even from his own identity. “I said my real name aloud, then said it again, over and over,” he reflects while trying to beat the suffocating heat in a cheap hotel room in Abidjan. “I hadn't heard it spoken in so long.”
Perhaps out of a sense of fidelity, Light likewise fills his book with the kinds of purple flourishes that have always been the guiltiest pleasure of noir fiction. “My heart sheered the bolts holding it to the chassis of my chest, rattled wildly about my ribcage,” we're told at one point, or “I didn't question the set up. Luck's lips occasionally brush a man's cheek.” And so on, but doled out in mercifully small doses.
And it's a small price to pay for the sheer knowing thrill of Where Night Stops, which initially loops around and around its motivating tragedy and then smoothly accelerates to an irresistible pitch. It's all immediately, winkingly effective.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.