Guest Review: 'Samuel Taylor’s Last Night,' a Novel by Joe Amato
John Domini reviews a forthcoming academic novel from Dalkey Archive Press.
Samuel Taylor’s Last Night. Joe Amato. Dalkey Archive Press. January 2015. $15.95 (paperback).
REVIEW BY JOHN DOMINI
Academics, they tell you, offers a life of stability and quiet. So they tell you—a big lie that’s made an easy target for many an author. Just this year, Julie Schumacher achieved a fresh, barbed hilarity in Dear Committee Members. Now Joe Amato has come out with his own academic novel, Samuel Taylor’s Last Night. Within a very few pages, the text asserts itself as something else again (Note: The following includes words that some might find offensive.):
Last night the whole purpose of art was to elicit sympathy for those who have no purpose. Last night was this mumblecore or what?
Last night how is it that when I’m sitting... talking with my wife we’ve taken to referring to a despicable woman as a cunt without batting an ironic eye but would never ever refer to a despicable African American as a nigger without a very, very carefully managed irony? And was it OK if we sang along with Patti Smith’s “Rock’n Roll Nigger”?
This brief book is dominated by such passages, more often than not discontinuous, in a dapple of print and white space more typical of an outlier poet. Then too, while the examples above flirt with serious concerns, a number of others offer laughable scraps of fantasy, mostly male fantasy: “Last night, dodging bullets, a man among men, I took great pleasure in all things Ruritarian.” The reading experience, most of the way, is one of grasping for consistency, either story or essay consistency. There’s a Table of Contents, as if someone were trying to be helpful, but five of the seven chapters have the same title: “Last night.”
Now, the chapters all run about the same length, generating a kind of coherence. Also the second sustains one long scene, and the penultimate three or four, and by the final, fifth “Night,” the whole centrifugal exercise has revealed its center, namely, the title character and his dawning self-knowledge. You could even say this makes for a happy ending. Still, the pleasures of this text will remain, for many readers, incidental: a chuckle at an odd juxtaposition (Ruritarian?), or a blink, unnerved, at something smart yet disturbing (cunt and nigger?).
Last Night, that is, goes far beyond the satire of Schumacher, in a formal experiment that makes a natural fit for its publisher, Dalkey Archive. Amato finds solidarity with Gilbert Sorrentino at his most recondite and, more recently, Peter Dimock, in his hallucinatory mashup of the Bush-Cheney years, George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time (2012). The latter text, a freak of an epistolary novel, comes most alive in its apercus about America as Super-Power, and so makes the more illuminating comparison. In Last Night, too, even lighter moments will reveal a culture in decay. The numerous male touchstones, from driving jalopies to heavy lifting, underscore how rarely any of these guys (no more than voices, most of them) enjoy female companionship. For instance, dreams of sex (“On all fours, oh yeah...”) flit through the second “Last Night,” but the man imagining them, one Vick, Jr., never gets out of his car.
Now, Vick also serves as the protagonist of that first sustained incident, a crisis of black ice on a snowy night. Not that the writing’s wholly straightforward, for instance using “breaks” for “brakes,” perhaps pointing to the “breakage” throughout. Nonetheless, these pages deliver a genuine scare, and its elements come to suggest, over the following chapters, that Vick could be Samuel Taylor. Could be, what’s more, a fictionalized Joe Amato, whose well-regarded memoir Once An Engineer (2009) dwelt at length on winter driving around his hometown of Syracuse, New York. This similarity to the author links up with the similarity to other figures in Last Night, and so the Taylor who takes shape over the last two sections invites actual Aristotelian identification.
Getting to know the man, however, requires more hunting and pecking. One set of six lines develops a metaphor about bandwidth (which Taylor needs to change), and then a set of ten reflects on the region around Syracuse (where Taylor has “an old friend... writing about another old friend”). Still, the mosaic reveals, in time, a sympathetic complexity. A recent widower—the wife’s name, Nora, recalls Joyce —Taylor was born blue-collar during the Baby Boom, but he’s escaped grunt-work for an academic career that, while lengthy, has never achieved job security. The final chapter finds him once again a tenure-track candidate, decidedly unpromising, and as he delivers his presentation to the faculty, long since prepared of course, he sifts through his grief and hope, arriving finally at “what purpose might be better served” by his remaining energies.
That purpose, as in Dimock’s George Anderson, concerns the damage done by the Powers That Be. Amato’s protagonist has a vision of a “push-come-to-shove world,” with “catastrophic consequences of ordinary endeavors,” and this convinces him to abandon “erudite... shoptalk.” Hence, it’s Taylor’s last night.
Thus the question for the novel: does this end justify the means? The first chapter may glimmer with clever bits, but any relation to the closing epiphany remains faint — indeed invisible unless one reaches the close. In the second chapter, the skid generates its own suspense, but if the incident means to say anything about what cars are doing to the planet, we have to read in the implication. If the old Rust Belt presents an image of our brokendown future, we have to sketch it in. These connections too only come clear at the end. So, then: ninth-inning rally?
For myself, the answer’s yes, and before explaining I should add that I know Amato a bit. When he edited American Book Review, he accepted a few pieces of mine, good news at a time when I needed it. Still, my reviews often considered texts outside the norm, including a Dalkey mooncalf or two. That is, I’m a reader who appreciates how this novel’s whirling blocks of prose suggest faces glimpsed from behind a podium, or the landscape outside a spinning car, or the fast-moving crises of our time.
Then too, insofar as Last Night does tell stories, the issues bear on any crisis or time. Vick, Jr., survives his spinout, but this leaves him rushing to help other drivers, hitting the same ice. Taylor arrives on campus lonely and depressed, but he has to think hard about the complications when a friend proposes they have sex. The offer “fell from her lips like manna to this angry older man,” but in recognizing that anger, he has to think how it will bear on making love. He has to go on learning—ah, academics—amid the tumult of novel and world.
John Domini’s latest book is a selection of criticism, The Sea-God’s Herb. A set of stories, MOVIEOLA!, will appear next year, and a novel in 2016. See www.johndomini.com.
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