The Night Always Comes
By Willy Vlautin
Harper Books — April 2021
ISBN: 9780063035089 — Hardcover — 208 pp.
Lynette is a typical resident of Portland, struggling to survive and keep her family afloat amid ever widening wealth gaps in the population and gentrification of neighborhoods. Owning a home is economic stability. But, real estate prices have skyrocketed, making her goal of fulfilling the American Dream of a stable homestead all the more difficult to attain. Just in her thirties and saddled with bad credit, she works multiple jobs and pushes herself to mental and physical exhaustion to save all she can. Atop this, she spends every waking hour while at home supporting her developmentally disabled brother Kenny.
Finally, a homeowner is willing to give her a good deal and sell to her; she has managed to put together a plan to make it work. But, Lynette’s mother backs out of her financial contribution to the family goal, abandoning hope that owning a home will put them any better off, and opting for supporting her own immediate personal needs of gratification over long term possibilities. Unable to turn her mother’s mind back, Lynette goes out into Portland on a search for the needed money, calling in debts, going to friends for aid, and – as the desperation increasingly sets in – anything she can do to keep her dream of stability alive.
The Night Always Comes is a thrilling, heroic noir quest. But, one cast bleakly with the repeated crushing of an individual’s spirit by the disparity inherent in the indifference of pure capitalism; by the callous greed of other people trying likewise to survive it. The title of the novel, and its cover photography by Todd Hido, are particularly apt. For all the grit and grimdark of this literary thriller, shiny rays of hope persist, peaking out from the shadows. The unavoidable arrival of night is coupled to the unspoken promise that a daytime will surely follow, if one can just survive until then. A light of goodness remains illuminated even in a house of despair, despite being surrounded by caliginous exploitation.
Like a parable, The Night Always Comes is a succinct lesson in what economic divide and desperation can engender. The strength of Vlautin’s writing shows in how this lesson gets imparted with honesty and impassivity, never feeling pontifical. He renders Lynette with equal sincerity, illustrating both her virtues and her shortcomings. The character allows him to explore the psychological effects that disparity can have on a person, as panic and despair drive one to balancing indiscretions with the desire to keep a pure soul. The other characters offer depictions of other outcomes. For instance, the mother who has simply given up and can fight no further for anything but keeping herself happy and comfortable, a drug perhaps more addicting than the literal ones where Lynette might turn. Or, in contrast, the blithe innocence and ignorance of Kenny, a man whose ‘disabled’ mental faculties have protected his basic human love and empathy from being ground down by society and circumstances as in others.
Some might even consider Vlautin’s novel a crime story, both from the perspective of Lynette’s actions and what others do to her, but also in the sense of what society is doing to people. The noir tone of the plot and Vlautin’s language really augment this feeling. Both his dialogue and his descriptive passages show exceptional craftsmanship, and I guess this is nothing new, as he has won multiple awards and general accolades for previous novels. I hadn’t heard of Vlautin prior to getting a copy of this novel through a Goodreads giveaway, but I’ll definitely be looking for his past and future work now.
If you’re a reader who really looks for ‘feel-good’ escapist fiction, then this certainly is not the novel for you. If there was ever an opposite to a feel-good story (a feel-dreadful story?) then it’s this. But, that doesn’t mean it’s an unpleasant read, or a night of darkness you can’t get through. And maybe it’ll drive more into action that help bring the daylight to our world.