Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Where Night Stops by Douglas Light. (Rare Bird Books)
I am a big advocate for entertainment that does just that—entertain. The base value of art is to occupy someone’s time in a worthy way, and if a filmmaker, musician, painter, or writer is able to transcend “simply entertaining” then it is a bonus. I say this to employ the idea that not all art needs to have any added -ness to it. Movies like John Wick can exist as examples of a form and genre that are solidly made and don’t require a larger commentary. Douglas Light’s new novel, Where Night Stops, isn’t necessarily saying anything larger—other than we are more apt to take risks while in a state of grief—and that’s okay. Sometimes we deserve to read something for the sheer enjoyment that it brings us.
Where Night Stops is about a newly high school-graduated unnamed narrator that hits the road after his parents die. He takes the Greyhound bus and hitchhikes as far as they will take him and ends up in Seattle, Washington. He doesn’t have a job or any prospects, so he finds himself as a resident at a homeless shelter where he befriends an older man named Ray-Ray. Through this friendship he finds a door into a life of crime and globetrotting. The structure is non-linear, jumping between the main character waiting in Havana, Florida, for an unnamed task—we’re led to believe it’s going to be of the killing variety—and his time working his way up in the underground criminal market. In the beginning, I assumed he had spent the previous few years perfecting his occupation as a hitman, but as the two plots begin to converge it became apparent that the narrator is nothing more than a glorified delivery boy.
The first half of the novel moves swimmingly and the motivations make sense. The narrator starts making small handoffs and pick-ups due to his monetary and emotional desperation. He gets into the crime game to begin with because he is too proud to continue living in the homeless shelter, but he stays in because the thrill of the missions gets his adrenaline pumping. During these parts of the novel we are introduced to characters who stick around for a few pages and then quietly drift away. It reminded me of moments in The Road or Into the Wild. These characters the narrator finds himself connecting with are fully-formed and intriguing and could have their own novels, but we get these small snapshots into their lives. It might sound like this is a negative, but the way Light is able to give a concise image of these people in such a short period of time is a good example of his skill. We’re not missing anything here because they are bringing all they need to the larger story and helping move the narrator along in his own personal journey.
Douglas Light’s new novel, Where Night Stops, isn’t necessarily saying anything larger—other than we are more apt to take risks while in a state of grief—and that’s okay. Sometimes we deserve to read something for the sheer enjoyment that it brings us.
Since this is a contemporary noir, mystery plays a large part in the forward progression of the story. The closer we get to the end and the more the past begins to catch up to the present we get a fuller picture of the narrator’s job. Halfway through the novel, the ambiguous nature in which his job is described starts to stale—because one would think that if someone is flying all over the world he’d be doing something larger than handing an envelope to a guy in a coffee shop and then flying back to the States. As the end of the book started to form, the more certain I was that there was nothing more to the narrator’s job. All he did was make deliveries, and even though I could buy the paranoia involved, I wasn’t able to quite buy into the idea that he was making so much money that he could pick up and move to an entirely different city at the drop of a hat. I didn’t believe someone would be employing him and sending him on international flights to hand someone a stack of photographs. The further I got into the book, the more unstable this idea became to me until it essentially toppled under its own weight.
Douglas Light is a talented writer, there’s no doubt about that. The characters he was able to weave into this story all felt real and compelling. In the end, I’m happy to have read Where Night Stops because we see amazing character sketches, but unfortunately it doesn’t feel like it goes much beyond that. The plot of the book seemed like Light wanted to go nuts with an international espionage book but wasn’t able to quite get there. The tropes and stakes were present, but the actions leading the characters there fell short. He bought us a ticket, but he couldn’t take us on the ride.