by Armistead Maupin
Published by Harper
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
August 2, 2006.
Armistead Maupin’s 2000 novel The Night Listener has been gathering dust in my to-read bookcase for a long time. With a movie version starring Robin Williams about to open, I finally got around to reading the book.
Although I did not regularly rotate the book, I think that like a good wine, it has improved with age. Or, at least, its main storyline has become more relevant. By which I do not mean the movie opening on 1,350 U.S. screens on Friday. Rather, there have been recent brouhahas about whether it matters if a compelling story presented as a memoir is fiction (James Frey) and, even more directly, if it matters if J. T. LeRoy is an abused young man or a comfortable 40-something woman.
The Night Listener was presented as a novel, though (1) its protagonist has extensive similarities to what is public record about Maupin, and (2) his protagonist was sent a manuscript by a teenage fan who had been sexually abused and written movingly about it for blurbing. Who wrote the memoir is the central mystery of a page-turning account of intrigue.
The book is clearly metafiction in that much of it deals with writers fictionalizing their own experiences. The narrator of the text, Gabriel Noone, Jr., who has been blocked, is urged to tell the story of his relationship with the young fan, this story being “The Night Listener.”
In The Night Listener, Noone also improves upon his relationship with his father—or, more precisely, Maupin writes of his fictional alter ego Gabriel providing a more satisfying resolution of his fraught relationship with his South Carolina bigot father [for more on that, see Maupin’s 2018 memoir, Logical Family].
The name on the memoir Noone receives at a time of great personal turmoil (I’ll get back to that) is bylined Pete Lomax, a 13-year-old who had been sexually abused by his father from an early age, sometimes videotaped by his mother, and pimped out by them. The sexual slavery of the pre-teen included being infected with HIV, and he is supposed to be in very fragile health.
Rather than spinning out a newspaper serial like Tales of the City (which ran to six bound volumes), Noone has a late-night PBS show, Noone at Night, in which he tells about his life and friends, “stories about people caught in the supreme joke of modern life who were forced to survive by making families of their friends” (more David Sedaris than Garrison Keillor, it seems). Pete and his adoptive mother, Donna, a child therapist, are fans of Noone at Night, and Gabriel is encouraged to call his fatally ill young fan.
Pete (who says he is straight) invites Gabriel into feeling like an ideal father. Pete calls him “Dad,” while also providing him advise on his (Gabriel’s) love life. Donna encourages the bond, and is the putative source of some of the therapy-talk buzz words Pete uses.
Someone less trusting—and less emotionally needy with a less frustrated relationship with his own father—would suspect that however sexually experienced a 13-year-old might be, he would not say the things that Pete says.
When Gabriel calls up, he is not sure whether Pete or Donna answers. After Gabriel’s ex, Jess, talks to them, and tells Gabriel:
“Pete and Donna have the same voice.”
“Oh, I know,” Gabriel replies. “It’s that flat Midwestern thing. Not very pretty.”
“No. I mean it’s the same person.”
Gabriel (1) wants to believe in Pete and (2) does not want to believe that he has been fooled ((3) that he has been lured into blurbing a hoax is a minor concern in comparison). He attempts to arrange a personal visit so that he can vouch for the authenticity of Pete. It is canceled, the phone number disconnected. Gabriel flies to Milwaukee anyway and drives to try to find Donna and Pete. He finds a landmark and at least one major surprise (that neither he nor I anticipated).
The short chapters are a bit too like serials (Tales of the City, for instance), with hooks to make sure readers continue, and Gabriel is a bit gooey (vanilla goo), but I thought the mystery was more interesting and better done than those in Tales of the City. (BTW, Gabriel’s bookkeeper is a peripheral character from Tales).
Although I assume that the movie focuses on the Gabriel-Pete-Donna story, I was at least as interested in the evocation of the relationship between Gabriel Noone, Jr. and Gabriel Noone, Sr. (and his wife who is younger than his son; his first wife having died), and that of Gabriel (Jr.) and Jess.
Like Maupin’s long-term partner, Terry Anderson, Jess was expecting to die soon, when protease inhibitors gave many PWAs (person with AIDS) a new lease on life (creating the category of ex-PWAs, though ex-PWAs are still HIV-infected). Gabriel was standing by his man. “’Til death do us part” seemed imminent.
And then it no longer was, and Jess did not want/need help dying. He wanted to start a new life, and jettisoned his widow[er]-to-be. Gabriel understands this (and, since he wrote Gabriel, so must Maupin) but is no less emotionally lost by being “abandoned” without the kind of closure (death) he had prepared himself for. Gabriel was unmoored and (over-)eager for establishing intimacy with someone else and, I think, with someone else likely to die and be mourned soon. (The new drugs did not seem to be working for Pete, if he was getting them in rural northern Wisconsin.) I’d say “to die and provide fresh material” for the writer, but living on did not preclude mourning Jess in print.
Reading The Night Listener, Gabriel Noone, Jr. is a part in which it is fairly easy to imagine Robin Williams, though it is easier to see him as another San Francisco celebrity, Armistead Maupin.
©02 August 2006, Stephen O. Murray