Simon Van Booy remains a mysterious writer, in the sense of an unpredictable variousness about his work’s forms: essays, novels, short stories, philosophy books, children’s books, film, theater, and more. (His 2009 collection, “Love Begins in Winter,” won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.) Raised in Wales, Van Booy has lived in London and New York. But he spent a significant period as a young man in Kentucky after accepting a rugby scholarship there, and has since maintained close ties with the place and its people.
That world, during hard decades of its history, is explored at close-hand in “Night Came With Many Stars,” Van Booy’s ambitious fourth novel. Telling the interconnected stories of several generations of a Kentucky family, the novel tacks back and forth in time, slowly revealing individual lives, their relationships, and the thorny progress of their paths.
Its opening in 1933 — in which Carol, a forlorn, motherless 13-year-old girl waits alone in a shabby house for the return of her violent, drunken father, who has just bet and lost the girl in a card game — makes a reader fear the worst. But the writing — unflinching yet tender, a sensibility which, like Flaubert’s, suffuses everything — carries us through. “She sang because the house was empty. Her voice filled each room like invisible writing,” Van Booy writes. “[U]nder the stairs … she discovered flour in a round tin the government had given them … then went outside to the well, still barefoot and moving quickly ... Carol knew the water was cold from how the rope smelled in her hands ... [water fed by] a slow river that was even deeper than the bones of her grandpa who had died in a plowed field with no sound, just a quick folding up into the brown waves.”
Scenes like the above, inlaid with lyrical yet gritty context, act almost chorally throughout the novel as a surging reminder of time’s movement, while also physically grounding us. When the child hides in a cupboard to avoid being beaten, “she could smell the sweat from behind her knees.” Nerve and imagination matter, we observe, from the start. Carol learns to flee to the woods “where she could be lost without being lost from herself.” There she “waited for spring the way a person waits for some beloved friend who has already begun the long journey home ... [for] the single eye of color that meant it was close.”
Tellingly, the girl puzzles over the heinous fact of Jesus’s execution: “He loved ever’body, but that wasn’t enough. They killed him anyway. People watched it happen, as though they had something to gain…. Maybe all fathers needed forgiving for what they did, or what they didn’t do.”
In that small passage we’re handed the seed of the novel’s struggle — and a core concern of Van Booy’s oeuvre: the riddle of human evil, whether viciously deliberate or haplessly paid forward. Occasionally the story turns graphic; violence is depicted head-on — a departure for this gentle author. Derived from real stories entrusted to Van Booy by three generations of a rural Kentucky family, “Night Came” studies the long arc of human striving.
Young Carol’s beginnings give over to those of Samuel — also 13, but 53 years later. (Their relationship is soon revealed.) Samuel’s parents are square, good-hearted, working class. Aging Uncle Rusty, who is developmentally disabled, lives with the family. Samuel’s best friend Eddie, tormented by rotten circumstance, thrashes through a counterpoint life. “Over dinner … Samuel’s father said that Eddie was cursed from day one. It hurt Samuel to hear that, to know some people could be singled out for pain.” When, as a youngster, Eddie injures Samuel’s eye, Samuel can’t not forgive him: “[H]is best friend’s life was already so broken....” Many of the novel’s loveliest pages offer glimpses of the boys’ lifelong bond.
Slow evolutions characterize this saga — surviving objects occasionally surface, reminding us of time’s passage — as do grueling social and economic reversals. When the grown Samuel visits the grown Eddie in his wretched trailer after the latter’s done jail time, “Samuel could see clearly, behind the unwashed clothes and clumsy tattoos, that Eddie was still just a boy living in exile from his own life, always on the verge of being loved.” And when Heather, the small-town waitress Samuel will marry, ponders a merry local group in some random old photos, “[she] knew their lives had come and gone…. Many years ago, there had been a factory nearby and the town was prosperous. Heather wondered if the people in the pictures sensed their time of abundance would pass. Or did every day seem new and unbreakable?”
Which breakage can be mended? Interleaved chapters track Carol’s and Samuel’s roller-coastering fortunes, alongside those of the Samaritans — and a villain or two — close to them. Carol finds initial sanctuary with a trio of women who provide abortions to desperate girls; from those ties, other kinds of help germinate. Samuel stumbles early, nearly felled by alcoholism; his rescuer’s identity surprises us. Kindness and raw luck undergird “Night Came” — echoing the trials and windfalls of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield. And like Dickens’s young heroes, Van Booy’s determined souls act with their whole hearts — as does this brave, fierce novel — to earn what good may come.
NIGHT CAME WITH MANY STARS
By Simon Van Booy
David R. Godine, 248 pages, $25.95