7 Deadly Reasons "The Night Listener" Is a Horrid Book
This article contains spoilers, but I promise you that I am doing you a favor if these spoilers dissuade you from wasting your time and money.
It has no idea what it wants to be. A heartwarming story about a lonely gay man paternally connecting with a lonelier boy? A chronicle of a failed romantic relationship? A thinly veiled novel about the author's upbringing? A mystery about a woman who may be pretending she is a teenage boy (quite the role reversal from what usually happens on the internet)? Hardcore gay erotica describing a penis as being like a baby's arm holding an apple? While is certainly can be more than one of the above, it was jarring to the point of revulsion to alternate between scenes of Gabriel Noone--Maupin's proxy--soothing the AIDS infected, serially raped Pete Lomax and engaging in graphically described anonymous truck stop sex. (If any potential authors are reading this, you might not want to have your "noble" protagonist getting buggered too close to a discussion of sex crimes committed on a minor. Just a little advice.) If I want erotica, I can get it from better authors on Literotica. When dealing with a boy who has been nothing but abused in his life (if he even exists at all) you might just want to stop juxtaposing his heart and your cock. I realize that Maupin put in such graphic sexual content to show his critics that he is not like Charles Dickens, a compliment he should have simply run with and appreciated, but it doesn't work and made me consider abandoning the book more than once.
The whole "Is Pete real?" question is never resolved. It is fine to leave the reader with some questions upon the ending of the book, but you do actually have to try to finish the main story. I know that Maupin was betting on his literary credibility here, which is greater than I can imagine, but it isn't enough to sustain interest. You do not sell puzzles to which you don't have the majority of the central pieces. Maupin apparently does not see this as a problem because, I imagine, he has decided that he is a Serious Writer, which means he is apparently allowed to waste the readers' time because they are plainly philistines for not getting his point in not resolving the central conflict. I get it, it just is lame and an abuse of the readers' trust.
The "gotcha!" ending. It isn't cute and it isn't clever, particularly when Maupin has set it up so poorly. Much better authors have tried it with some success and the literary world is more than a little familiar with the idea of the unreliable narrator, but it doesn't work in The Night Listener. It comes off as a sort of shaggy dog joke or a literary cop-out, the jeweled elephant in the beginning of the novel taking a heart crap on the readers who have slogged through the book up to this point. It reminded me unflatteringly of The Life of Pi, a better book that I forced myself through hoping for redemption for an otherwise weak and rambling story that passed through the hands of publishers who felt that quirkiness alone was enough to sell a book. Both books' devise of "it is only a story" differ only half a degree from the sin of claiming one's story was only a dream that is explicitly and correctly warned against on the first day of freshman Creative Writing class. We bloody well know it is a story--the spine reads "fiction"-and that doesn't excuse the author from doing their job of telling a half-way decent story which includes a competent ending.
That the movie version almost has to be better, and I haven't even seen it. For one thing, I cannot imagine that Robin Williams would care to fellate a stranger in a truck stop. He has certainly played gay roles (The Bird Cage) and done good jobs with them, but he has yet to break into the porn market with any regularity. Much of what was so abominable in this novel involved Gabriel's inner monologue, his incessantly whiny and narcissistic prattling about how great a writer he is or what a horrid person he is, and could easily be excised by a competent screenwriter and director. What is left behind would not be a great story, but it would be something that could be used and improved. This irritates me because, like all literary prigs, I like saying that the book is better than the movie (Fight Club excepted).
That the pretty phrases and brilliant images in are utterly wasted because they are forced to dwelling in this rambling dreck heap. Maupin is not a bad writer, he just shows himself to be a terrible storyteller in this novel that closely approximates his life. Perhaps he should take up poetry. He also might not wish to strain his metaphors to the breaking point. That the title of the chapter "Semaphore" refers beautifully to his relationship with his estranged father, communicating badly from a distance because they can't get close. That he then uses it to refer to the aforementioned baby holding an apple, being shaken to signal "is it be sex time now?" destroys the previous beauty of the image, yet again juxtaposing his penis with someone we actually care to hear.
That the author felt the need to read his own work. I am a huge fan of audiobooks and am almost always listening to one in my car. With rare exceptions, I enjoy even weak books in this format. But the rare exception is often that the author of the book feels that they are the best or only person capable of narrating their masterpiece. It really is okay not to. Should my books ever get published, I will be certain to get a skillful woman to read them (I like Susan Bennett, personally). While not quite as egregious as Michael Cunningham reading his novel The Hours (if most of your important characters are female, please let a woman read) or Stephen Hawking reading A Brief History of Time (yes, really), Maupin's voice never rises above a caricature of how the other characters should sound, a tone referred to in other critiques as "a soft, southern queen." He is nothing close to a professional voice actor and should not pretend otherwise. While I understand that the material is obviously close to him, let it go. Let your horrid little exercise in literary masturbation have more of a chance to succeed. Don't be such a controlling prick that you have to be involved in every aspect of your novel. (N.B. David Sedaris and Bill Bryson are totally welcome to read their own work whenever possible. Heck, they are welcome to read my work too.)
How often and easily the central conflict could have been resolved, were it not for the main character saying, "I don't wanna!" in an effort to pad the book out for another fifty pages. That is weak writing in the extreme. If you can contrive no better way to prolong intrigue at the story than to have the character based on you, the character you keep pumping up as a reasonably intelligent person, resist asking simple questions, you do not deserve to have the conflict extended for another sentence. I understand that this novel was semi-autobiographical and perhaps Maupin himself took the path of the milquetoast and prefer to make ridiculous trips rather than a three corroborating phone calls or spend ten minutes on a search engine, but the readers have better things to do than have the same goddamned scene pay out no fewer than ten times while Gabriel perseverates. This also cycles back on the initial point, as Maupin stuffs the minimal meat of this story with so much empty calories of plotlines that he couldn't make stand on their own.
Xen likes listing various things in sevens. He might actually be obsessive compulsive in this way. We try not to mention it to him.
Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.