Night Comes With Many Stars Fails to Shine



By Simon Van Body

Godine, 294 pages.




Set in Kentucky, this tale of drinking, gambling, poor decisions, and bad behavior reads like a hillbilly spinoff of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Except that Simon Von Body is no Thomas Hardy and none of his characters rise to distinction, even belatedly so. It spans the years 1933-2010. Readers might expect that someone would break the above cycle within a three-generation span but for the most part, sympathetic characters end up as victims and the circle remains unbroken.


Carol Clay is an illiterate, developmentally delayed girl whose sole consolations in life are a ragged doll she names Mary Bright and a patch of yellow table cloth that’s all she has left of her mother. She is “sold” by her abusive, alcoholic father to cover a gambling debt. (She’s actually sort of a loaner.) She’s fed better, but she’s also sexually abused and impregnated. Having fun yet? She is eventually spirited away by a Cherokee man who despises her father and deposits her with an African-American woman who lives with a White woman of Polish ancestry. Are they lovers? Who knows?  


Move ahead a generation and we find that Carol’s unfortunate first child, Rusty, is a happy-go-lucky mentally challenged kid who loves all things that have a Coca-Cola logo. Carol will be taught to read by Joe, nicknamed “Big Head,” who was raised by an African-American couple that took him in as he roamed semi-wild when his father was in jail. Joe is kind, marries Carol, and is as much her caregiver as a husband. He helps raise Rusty, and he and Carol eventually have a daughter, Alfreda. Joe’s not the sharpest tool in the box either, but an older neighbor couple helps out until Joe and Carol get a home of their own.


Alfreda becomes a teacher. She and her husband Randy have a son, Samuel, who pals around with Eddie, still another physically and socially damaged kid. Samuel is smart, but is better at gambling than school. While horsing around, Eddie nearly blinds Samuel and his funny-looking eye becomes a major part of the narrative. Samuel makes it through one semester at Western Kentucky State University before he decides it’s not for him. Both he and Eddie will struggle, though Samuel’s more stable family at least keeps him out of jail.


I give all this detail because I’d hardly blame you if you decide to give this novel a miss. I’ve not even mentioned murders, divorces, additional broken homes, more alcoholism, or a father who thinks that taking his son to a whorehouse will help him grow up. Or that setting up a business funded by a gambling windfall is cause for parental pride.


By now you can probably tell I disliked this book. Joe and Rusty are good-hearted, but not many nice things happen to good people. I’m not sure what the point of this novel might be. Is it the cycle of poverty? Well, Samuel’s folks aren’t rolling in dough but Alfreda and Randy are way better off than Carol’s parents, Joe and Carol. Are Samuel and Eddie supposed to be Appalachian versions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn? Tom and Huck were mischievous and got into trouble, but they also had roughhewn charm that eludes Samuel and Eddie. At times it seems that Van Body wants to flash freeze Depression-era Kentucky and have us believe it’s still thawing out 70+ years in the future. This makes Van Body’s attempts to tick a few PC boxes seem like contrivances.


Night Came With Many Stars does Kentucky no favors. Unless you think rehabbing a house where unspeakable violence occurred is redemptive. I don’t.


Rob Weir



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