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SPARROW NIGHTS by David Gilmour
Review by Charlie Dickinson
'The story builds to a stunner of a climax...'

Counterpoint, 2002, 217 pp., ISBN: 1-58243-203-1
Hardcover - 224 pages (September 25, 2001)
Language: English
Random House of Canada; ISBN: 0679311122

When we first meet Darius Halloway, the first-person narrator of Sparrow Nights, our first impression is respectability and intellectual prowess. Professor Halloway teaches French Literature at a Canadian university and we might think his tenured work life at age 54 an uncomplicated coast to retirement years. He's over a failed, childless marriage. Now, his contentments are the arcana of French Symbolists and an occasional restaurant meal, usually taken alone, of fine food and a robust red wine. The title of David Gilmour's novel, however, refers to a Russian expression, we learn, that describes a night of dementia and torment. Professor Halloway's confession takes us from first impressions downward to somewhere in Dante's circles.

How did Halloway find himself, to borrow a phrase from one of his scholarly subjects, in "une saison en enfer"? It had to do with teacher-student relations ....
Some colleges in the U.S. and Canada (Yale and the University of Texas come to mind) prohibit instructors from having physical relationships with students. Curbing abuse in trust-based relationships carries over to doctors (psychiatrists especially), and clergy (notoriety given certain Zen priests and, yes, celibate priests).

But for other academic venues, apparently all's fair in love.
Several years ago, a thin 29-year-old blonde told me she left home and went to the University and stayed. One of her professors had abandoned his family for her. Early in Sparrow Nights, we quickly surmise on Professor Halloway's campus, teachers being with students is also no taboo. As Halloway relates, five years earlier, he met, if not the love of his life, certainly the sex partner of his life. A graduate student, roughly half his age, Emma. They were together for three years.
Then Emma left.

Halloway knows why Emma left: His lack of compassion finally drove her away. What he doesn't know is why her departure left him existentially adrift. In a narrative not without heaps of dramatic irony, Halloway recounts where his self-obsession took him. At a Caribbean resort, he tells strangers he needed to get away. Why? they ask. " ... I poisoned my neighbor's dogs." Dancing with the wife of a man who is drinking too much on the last day of their vacation, Halloway has a simple request: Might he put his hand under her arm? "You smell like Emma," he tells her. After returning home from the Caribbean holiday, Halloway becomes a habitue of the Gold Hat Health Club, a massage parlor specializing in "hand release" services. If the professor's sex life faces redefinition in the balance of the book, it's not without a concomitant dissection of his soul.

Sparrow Nights reads like any great page-turner, even though the story's told by an often repulsive narrator. Why? Darius Halloway's compelling honesty pulls us along, into his indulgent self-obsession, early dispatching of dogs new to the neighborhood (and worse), notwithstanding. And the Janus-faced persona: outward respectability played against inward grief and despair over Lust's Labor's Lost seems not that foreign, not that off-putting. That is, Darius Halloway is not quite the madman Patrick Bateman of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho.

Besides a first-person narrator with a compelling voice, Sparrow Nights has virtues that signal well-crafted fiction. Fifteen, often short, chapters are well-paced. The story builds to a stunner of a climax, unexpected, yet inevitable as snow in late April. Character is revealed in memorable scene action.

And the dialogue, trim and never talky, has punch.
Another measure of Gilmour's virtuosity is that after the professor bottoms out in hellacious self-abandon, redemption, of a sort, is earned in the last paragraph. One scene, Halloway and his late-life daughter. Nearby, in his peripheral vision, after the long absence, Emma appears. Then a blink of the eye and Emma's gone. In that instant, his memory of Emma gives way to the bond with his toddler daughter. The lock of memory is broken and Darius Halloway is released from "sparrow nights."

© Charlie Dickinson August 2002

Counterpoint Press is an American publisher that is a member of the Perseus Books Group. They have a website http:// & publish a number of notable authors.

*This is our first review by Portland based Charlie and he has promised many more


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