Of Trauma and Travel: a review of ‘Where Night Stops’ by Douglas Light

By Jordan Blum

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‘Where Night Stops’ – Douglas Light

We’re born with a finite number of opportunities. Attrition, bad choices, misspent goodwill, and fucked-up luck. The opportunities dwindle through a process called living. Our portfolio of prospects turns into a tattered novel of outcomes. I am twenty-two.

Thus opens Where Night Stops, the latest book from American writer Douglas Light, whose story collection, Girls of Trouble, won the 2010 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. (Also, his debut, East Fifth Bliss, was turned into the film Trouble with Bliss, which starred Michael C. Hall, Brie Larson, and Peter Fonda.) Filled with tense and intriguing situations, plenty of poignant and philosophical sentiments, and an assortment of colorful—if also slightly underdeveloped—characters, the novel is a captivating psychological drama whose relentless vibrancy and pace mostly makes up for its marginally opaque and repetitious core.

The tale revolves around a nameless young man whose childhood trauma (a car crash) leaves him orphaned and steers him towards destitute and aimless adulthood. That is, until (as the official synopsis reads) “Ray-Ray, an Iranian with a shadowy past . . . initiates him into a new life.” Specifically, he starts “fend[ing] for himself through carrying out clandestine drops for cash from an anonymous source”; while that’s all well and good at first, he eventually “finds himself targeted for death, but from whom or for what reason, he’s not sure.” It’s certainly an intriguing premise, and Light does a fine job of fulfilling its potential with a lot of visceral interactions, heartfelt realizations, relatable conflicts (both internal and external), and organizational creativity.

One of Where Night Stops’ greatest strengths is its constant shifts in place and time. While the bulk of the novel concerns his jobs for and exchanges with his boss (Higgles), those chapters are often separated by one of three main deviations: his future dialogues with a forlorn female alcoholic, the details of the aforementioned accident, or his history with an ex-lover named Sarah. Although moving around chronologically can often be tricky, Light pulls it off very well, giving the separate parts of the narrator’s life multifaceted context because of how they influence each other. Throughout the book, there’s a perpetual juxtaposition between what is and what could’ve been that makes it richly involving and moving.

Along those lines, there are moral poeticisms scattered around that offer meaningful contrasts to the blunter pieces of plot development and action. For instance, after a notably stressful turn of events, our protagonist concludes, “Only the depressed have a realistic view of themselves”; likewise, a chat with the wino results in him yielding that “we’re fired from an unknown gun, shot at a target unseen. Life is making the best of a bad trajectory.” It’s quick utterances like these, in conjunction with lengthier and more detailed affirmations of his various tragedies and mistakes, that give Where Night Stops such universality and robust pathos.

Of course, Where Night Stops isn’t flawless, and its biggest problem lies in its combination of vagueness and duplication. Basically, the narrator continuously does the same sort of task for Higgles (with assorted outcomes each time), and while that’s always engaging, it also starts to feel a bit tedious because we— like him—are never quite sure why he’s doing any of it. It sort of feels like everyone involved (readers and characters) are just going through the motions for a substantial part of the proceedings. That lack of specificity also hurts the other players in the story, as almost none are given enough development and explanation to produce sufficient motivation and depth. As a result, the concluding twists and turns are somewhat predictable and unimpactful.

Despite those criticisms, the book is a page-turner overall because of how well Light crafts tense predicaments and emotional truths. It’s fairly easy to see yourself in his main character (well, to some extent, as you’ll see) and empathize with his rationale and reactions; furthermore, it has enough shocking moments, cryptic appeal, and pervasive tautness to keep it sufficiently, if not completely, alluring. Although it has its issues, Where Night Stops does enough right to keep you invested until dawn, and it further cements Light as a promising new fiction writer.

Jordan Blum