By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Cartoon by Bruce Eirk Kaplan
There is something refreshingly old-fashioned about Peter Gadol’s Light at Dusk. Forget for a moment the contemporary touch of an openly gay narrator, and the equally current look-at-me symbolism of naming one character Will Law and another Jorie (say it aloud and learn what role she’ll play by novel’s end). Concentrate instead on Gadol’s elegant, exquisitely mannered prose; tight, suspenseful plotting; moody Parisian setting; fearlessly high-modernist concerns — moral compromise, the collapse of the ties binding reason and truth and authority, the strength and ultimate helplessness of love — and Light at Dusk will not look out of place slouching on the shelf somewhere between Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene.
It doesn’t hurt that, except for the cell phones, Gadol’s fifth novel is set in a contemporary Europe that would be as recognizable to a reader in the ’30s as to one in ’90s Paris — or, for that matter, even 1990s California. The nationalist French Front party has risen to power and passed a series of repressive anti-immigrant laws. Meanwhile, skinhead gangs roam the streets, terrorizing anyone of unorthodox hue. In this context, Pedro Douglas, an American living abroad to study the architecture of one Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, is reunited with his long-lost lover Will Law, of whom he says: “All of us know someone we chase our whole lives. An early heartache haunts us across the years and by some ration makes its way into any new romance. Old sorrow has a way of renewing itself in new sorrow.”
Will reappears after abandoning a promising career in the foreign service following a mysterious fiasco in Mexico he believes himself responsible for, about which “the only concrete facts were who was dead.” But political intrigue does not evade him for long. On his way to see Pedro, whom he has asked to run off with him, to start anew, he no sooner meets Jorie — an American woman unhappily married to a Lebanese man and in the process of running off with her stepson — than the boy, Nico, is kidnapped by a racist gang.
Will sees his chance at salvation: “One good act — one seed cast into a hard fallow field, from which a new good life would inevitably flower.” He enlists Pedro in the search for Nico, through abandoned streets and alleys lit by burning trees, their “branches electric with fire and folding in on themselves like a time-lapsed flower losing its bloom,” peopled only by other parents calling out for their similarly kidnapped children, and by predatory gangs of “white boys with the shorn heads and the unlaced black boots and the tricolor tattooed on their forearms.” But even in search of redemption, Will inevitably must rely on his old contacts in the world of diplomacy, and soon finds himself involved in a shaky game of give-and-take with the very forces he is fighting.
Throughout all of this, Gadol (who lives in Los Feliz) maintains the architecture of Ledoux — “an anti-Baroque visionary” who nonetheless designed beautifully proportioned tollhouses that “served the needs of the Ancien Régime to streamline the collection of taxes” — as a potent symbol. In search of young Nico, Pedro finds himself in one such structure, the Rotonde de la Villette, which he describes as “enlightenment and reason and good taste all embodied in one classical gesture,” but which now functions as a squat for skinheads, strewn with trash, its windows broken and walls begrimed with soot and racist graffiti. These are the monsters reason breeds, Gadol implies, when blind to love and truth.
Told in a decidedly lighter voice are the trio of sweet and sadly funny stories that intertwine through Nickel and Dime, in which the prolific Gary Soto, with the easy simplicity of his children’s books, takes on the precariousness of life in the boom-time ’90s and some rather basic lessons about friendship. The first, “We Ain’t Asking Much,” follows dimwitted bank guard Roberto’s descent into homelessness. Laid off and unable to find work, Roberto finds himself living in an abandoned Quonset hut in a vacant lot in Oakland’s Fruitvale barrio. “He moved there with his clothes, a few sticks of furniture, an ice chest, and a treasury of records from the 1970s — Santana, War, the Bee Gees, the Supremes, Grand Funk Railroad, Fleetwood Mac — timeless music that would outlast plutonium, it was so good.”
With Chaplinesque optimism, Roberto tries again and again to make an honest living, selling Christmas trees he’s found, making wreaths, fighting squirrels for an acorn (“‘You can’t have everything,’ he yelled at the squirrel. ‘Greedy ratón’”), but ends up in a paddy wagon at story’s end nonetheless, with even his LPs lost. In “Literary Life,” Roberto meets up with Silver Mendez, a washed-out poet who “had a name in the 1970s. His name nowadays, however, was well known only to a few friends, who mostly stayed away, fearing that Silver would hit on them for money.” When his roommate kicks him out, his friends and even his mother won’t have him, so Silver ends up living in his beat-up Honda with Roberto for company.