By David Gilmour
Sparrow Nights begins as homage to Philip Roth. The narrator, Darious Halloway, is a middle-age professor of French literature at the University of Toronto. Being an academic he is capable of indulging in all kinds of self-conscious narrative tricks, literary allusions, and profound reflections on the meaning and purpose of life (where would the novel be without these guys?). But Halloway is also a professor of desire. He is obsessed with sex, even questioning if there is anything more to life. “Does anyone ever think of anything else?” he wonders. “Is there anything else?”
Halloway’s answer to that seems finally to be No, but he is less sure of himself than Roth’s David Kepesh (and a more interesting creation for his uncertainty). Disturbed by the end of a rocky affair with one of his students, he wanders the streets of Toronto looking for happiness. His pursuit of pleasure, however, is frustrated by his intellect. He thinks too much. His desires – a good meal, good sex – are always being overanalyzed. Here he is enjoying, or trying to enjoy, a trip to the liquor store:
I returned a moment later to the cashier with a Mondavi Reserve, the doctor having advised me that it is better to drink expensive wines than cheap ones. Then I hesitated. Surely, by buying only one bottle, I was asking for trouble. If you have one bottle, you’re constantly aware of running out, of being halfway there, two-thirds the way there, and so on right down to the last glass. It’s not a melodramatic craving for liquor; rather, it’s the nuisance of having to go back to the liquor store. Whereas if you buy two, you always have more than you need. You can have another glass or not without having to deal with the implications of where that leaves things, the imminent “Damn, I’m running low.”
I bought four bottles . . .
The same habit of mind infects his attitude toward sex. He begins to frequent massage parlours, finding that they free him “not just from desire, but, more important, from the worry that that desire would not be fulfilled.” Like buying the four bottles of wine, the only way to silence his inner voice is to drown it in surfeit.
This part of the story is very good, better even than what Roth did with much the same material in The Dying Animal. What Halloway has to say about the nature of happiness is the book’s ambiguous core. Sex is only an engine, and yet a necessary engine, for driving us to do the “real business of life,” our “real work”: writing books and having beautiful kids.
The conversational narrative makes the presentation of leitmotifs casual, and Halloway’s voice is easy and intelligent, though it sometimes strains for an image. One grimaces over a high-pitched voice “like air escaping from a baboon’s anus.” If it’s high-pitched, shouldn’t it sound as though it is being forced from a baboon’s anus? Terrors, at least in my opinion, should not spew from the mouth “like pus from a lanced boil.” This sounds like something from The Exorcist. And what about the cat “purring and drooling and rubbing against my leg”? Do cats drool?
Finally, when Halloway becomes involved with a black prostitute named Passion and her angry, violent pimp, all hell breaks loose. The denouement is fast, pointless, and unbelievable. The presentation is terrific, but this is not the book we came in with. One gets the sense that Gilmour has seen too many Hollywood movies.
Too many authors have.
Review first published online January 14, 2002.