It is hard to compare an end-of-school-year pool party to anything but a boiling cauldron of aqua. There are few things that will make you crave beer in the same way, either. I know. I stood on the hot concrete around the edge of a pool at a kid’s soiree. And I listened for that special kind of scream that only a mother can decide is one of joy or desperation.
Every group of children has the smartest kid and the dumbest kid, and at this little event, the dumbest kid walked right past her mother and jumped in the pool’s deep end. This would not be an anecdote if the kid could swim. Her mother was the only one who noticed her child drowning, and when she started squealing, I realized why the dumbest kid at the party was the dumbest. Her mother was also an idiot, who couldn’t keep her kid out of the deep end, and she couldn’t swim either.
So, I got to be a hero. I saved a child. But what if I hadn’t, or couldn’t? That’s the tragic scenario people remember. The sudden loss. The before and after. In my morbid imagination I wonder if a drowning person has time to realize that others are standing around doing nothing, stunned and possibly silent.
Douglas Light has written a fine narrative titled Where Night Stops. In it he explores a before-and-after tragedy, with its resulting abandonment, isolation, and conflict. Light creates a universal nameless kid with no support, who gets help from peculiar sources. This floundering young man finds his first “helper” in a homeless shelter. This helper is not just standing around; he’s scoping the innocent, the gullible, and the lost. Light’s main character works his way up a shady ladder of connections made through this helper. He soon conspires in Cold-War-style document exchanges to keep his finances buoyant and comfortable. But they only reinforce his isolation. “Friendless, I invented friends,” he admits in Chapter 26. Obvious and sad.
I will call Douglas’s protagonist “Nameless,” because we never learn his name. Nameless doesn’t know anyone else’s true name, either. All the central characters are imposters, by necessity. A man at the rear table of a café with a grey suit and a tan satchel. Someone with a rose in their lapel. A compulsive and terrifying gin aficinado. Higgles, who becomes the nexus of many problems. These characters are often Yoda-like philosophers at the same time. Everyone lives in a state of “akrasia.” It is a Greek word for acting against one’s better judgment due to a weakness of will. Their odd contrasts are delightful if frightening.
The impetus of the story is as follows. Nameless’s argumentative father has a disagreement with his mother about his driving. A resulting accident kills not only Nameless’s parents but also his best friend. This is my only complaint about the novel. The story sets up and executes the fatal part well, and killing everyone is necessary to the plot. But the cliché of an automobile accident due to a verbal skirmish left me feeling flatter than I expected. I admit, however, that the variety of ways to kill both parents, and a friend, are limited.
After the funeral, Nameless gets a lot of inedible casseroles, with anonymous contents (a great set up for all that is to follow). He gets some insurance money, and a house that he does not know how to manage. He loses it all due to immaturity and absent guidance, but he’s not the dumbest kid—unlike the little girl in my anecdote above. He manages to save his life, if not all of himself.
Throughout the book, Nameless returns to a state of mind and location called Haven. Haven is a wonderful naming; it is anything but. While in a taxi in Haven, he has a realization. “In all the years of Kam Manning (his nickname for use during his nefarious activities) I’ve never revealed where I live. In all the cities I’ve been, I’ve never taken anyone home.” But Nameless allows people into his location all the time. He denies himself, out of necessity, a home. The plot and its themes give the reader much to enjoy. To say any more about the story itself would be rotten. But the moment in which Nameless is recognized as unknowable is surprising and satisfying.
The book made me think of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, where lives another parentless young man in Artful Dodger mode. But the connection is not due to the styles of the authors. It is in the masterful examination of abandoned and isolated people. Deception seems the easier path but tricks the deceiver. This is not to imply that Light’s book is daunting in length or Dickensian at all. It made me think of the ways we, as human beings, act in weak-willed ways when know no one is watching and no one cares.
Douglas Light is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer. His novel East Fifth Bliss won the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for Fiction. He co-wrote the novel’s screen adaptation. His story collection Girls in Trouble received the AWP 2010 Grace Paley Prize. His short fiction has won an O. Henry Prize and appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Narrative, Guernica, Alaska Quarterly Review, and other publications.