The Night Listener
There are etchings of trumpeting elephants at the head of each chapter of THE NIGHT LISTENER, little elephants that seem in a strange way to serve as grandmasters for a parade of plot that follows in the ensuing pages. For THE NIGHT LISTENER is a novel not unlike a three-ring circus with perhaps too much going at one time for the reader to ever truly rest his eyes on one story line.
The ringleader of the book is our protagonist, Gabriel Noone, successful, public radio-syndicated storyteller and host of "Noone at Night." Noone is a highly likable character, once you grow accustomed to his flaws; an irascible, moody, infinitely proud, yet infinitely self-doubting middle-aged man whose life has become this vaulting mayhem of strange new events. In the first ring, we watch Gabriel cope with his separation from his longtime partner Jess. It is a painful breakup to witness: Jess is emboldened by his recent successful drug treatment against the AIDS virus; his battle over death has made him want to take more risks than a relationship with Gabriel. Gabriel, on the other hand, seems almost entirely incapable of functioning without Jess, and now feels himself a widower without him, a widower with a husband who is not dead.
The story of Gabriel and Jess is enough to take up a novel of its own but is by no means the central event in this book. Ring two is truly the focus of THE NIGHT LISTENER, and the stage where we watch Gabriel face an often dark and enigmatic beast. One day Gabriel decides to read one of the myriad bound galleys sent to him by publishers desperate for blurbs; it is a memoir called THE BLACKING FACTORY, written by a 12-year-old boy named Pete Lomax.
Young Lomax is possessed of such incredible literary genius that Gabriel cannot put the book down, despite the horrific tale it tells of the author's physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of his own parents. The details of this abuse are shocking, but worse still is the fact that Pete has been given AIDS by one of his violators. It is a tale so dark it is almost a little hard to believe...and that is precisely Maupin's intent.
Pete claims in his book that the only thing that kept him going through all the trials of his childhood was a late-night radio program hosted by none other than Gabriel Noone. Here, precisely when Gabriel is feeling most vulnerable and unloved, comes his biggest fan and an opportunity for Gabriel to feel wanted, needed and adored once again. What ensues is, again, a rather painful spectacle to watch: Gabriel gets in touch with Pete Lomax and the two develop an almost-too-immediate father and son bond, all completely created over the telephone. Pete's protective foster mother Donna (whose voice on the phone is suspiciously childlike, high-pitched and reminiscent of her son's) refuses to reveal to Gabriel where the two are living. And so begins a series of daily phone calls between "Dad" Gabriel and the terribly ill Pete, with Gabriel becoming ever-more attached to the young wastrel he imagines on the other end of the line. The action in this ring culminates with Gabriel venturing out to Middle America to find his newfound son; and what he finds instead only serves to deflate his hopes of heroic status.
Gabriel's mysterious relationship with his young "night listener" is thrown into interesting relief when compared to his awkward relationship with his own father, the octogenarian Gabriel Noone, Sr. A man from a time gone by would be perhaps a kind phrase to describe the elder Noone. He is a foul-mouthed bigot who embarrasses Gabriel in restaurants with lewd racial slurs. Even more painful, though, is that he never acknowledged his son's marriage to Jess and never truly accepted Gabriel's homosexuality. Yet despite the gross divide between father and son, there really is something terribly similar about the two men, as their shared name so clearly suggests. The scenes between the two Gabriels have the makings for very interesting literature, but somehow it seems that Maupin drops the ball a bit. Tension between the two men gives way to platitudes and tired dialogue where instead there could be the most authentic, human moments in THE NIGHT LISTENER. Sadly, there is simply too much else going on in the novel for Maupin to keep all three rings running smoothly.
THE NIGHT LISTENER offers the same singular wit and clever writing that Maupin fans have come to expect from the author of TALES OF THE CITY. The characters are vibrant here; the mystery of Pete Lomax rather intriguing. And as for the elephants, well, when you read this "big top" of a novel, you'll learn their charming story.
Reviewed by Meredith Blum on January 22, 2011
The Night Listener
- Publication Date: August 1, 2006
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 342 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- ISBN-10: 0061120200
- ISBN-13: 9780061120206