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.
If the first two stories seem to wander pointlessly at times, “The Untimely Passing of the Clock Radio,” the final story, is tighter and more effectively poignant. Gus, Roberto’s onetime co-worker at the bank, is two weeks from retirement after years of faithful service standing guard. “At 59, he was shrinking in his pigeon-gray uniform. He had stood in one place so long . . . that the vertebrae of his spine had begun to collapse, grinding down like teeth.” Solitary, proper and uptight, Gus looks forward only to “a future when he could sit in his living room with the colorful shadows of the television splashing over his face.”
His plan goes awry, however, one morning when his clock radio fails to go off. He arrives to work 20 minutes late, and to his horror, no one notices. “He almost longed for a moment of humiliation because if [the bank manager] didn’t care about lateness, then who would? And wouldn’t that mean that his promptness all these years had been a waste?” But no punishment comes, and Gus is overcome with bitterness over his wasted years, a bitterness sweetly and sadly leavened by the not entirely welcome company of Roberto, a dog named Flaco, and Gus’ once-hated neighbor, Mrs. Garcia, who turn his spiritual death into a melancholy and unexpected rebirth. This is not social realism. Nickel and Dime never crosses the line into preachiness, or even fully into realism — the stories maintain a softly cartoonish tone. Soto’s is a quainter and more ancient craft: storytelling.
Screenwriter James Gunn’s first novel, The Toy Collector, begins with the sentence “His real name was Trevor Forrester, but the kids in the subdivision called him Monster, because he was mean and he was ugly and he was retarded,” and within a few pages warns of the protagonist’s mom, “She seemed all right, but after you had lived with her for four years you knew she’d turn rat if the circumstances were right.” The cynicism and brutality of Gunn’s wit — which is ample — let up only briefly in the chapters that follow, and then only for shallow dives into a whiny, self-pitying nostalgia (“God giving man life and taking it away is not nearly so bad as God taking away childhood and giving him life”).
The Toy Collector’s narrator, coincidentally named James Gunn, is a Columbia dropout employed as an orderly in a Manhattan hospital. His sizable booze and drug problems are the least worrisome of his addictions: James and his friend Bill begin selling pills stolen from the hospital pharmacy to finance their extraordinarily expensive vintage-toy habits. Bill collects TV toys; he has action figures of the casts of the “great, never-to-be-matched ABC ’77 Tuesday-night lineup.” James goes in for robots: “Captain Future Superhero, Changing Prince, Deep Sea Robot, Dux Astroman, Interplanetary Spaceman,” etc. “Once, in a rare moment of eloquence, Bill called his hobby The Restoration of a Right World.”
James Gunn the novelist hops back and forth between the angry, troubled childhood (the so-called Right World) of James Gunn the protagonist and the latter’s angry, troubled present. He fucks up his relationships with his saintly girlfriend, Evelyn, and his 12-stepping brother with only slightly more panache than he fucked up schoolyard bullies back in the golden ’70s. Despite the laughs, which are many, the infantile, misogynistic, mawkish temper tantrum that forms the substance of The Toy Collector has all the depth and soul of a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s gone wrong. Look for it as an R-rated Adam Sandler vehicle at a theater near you.
Peter Gadol reads from Light at Dusk at Housing Works in New York on May 22 at 6:30 p.m., and at A Different Light in West Hollywood on June 8 at 8 p.m.
LIGHT AT DUSK | By PETER GADOL | Picador | 288 pages | $24 hardcover
NICKEL AND DIME | By GARY SOTO | University of New Mexico | 189 pages | $17 paperback
THE TOY COLLECTOR | By JAMES GUNN | Bloomsbury | 304 pages | $24 hardcover