Nothing but the Night by John Williams
Written in 1948 while the author was stationed in Burma, Nothing but the Night is a curious early work by celebrated American novelist John Williams (1922-1994). The novella investigates the haunted past of an angsty twenty-four-year-old living in the big city and drifts phantasmagorically between hazy memories and strange, dreamy realities. It feels like a writer’s first work, full of underdeveloped ideas and heavy-handed prose: considering the masterful heights of Williams’ later novels like Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing, Nothing but the Night lands as an impressive but non-essential work of juvenilia.
Set amidst jazz clubs and the sounds of cocktail shakers, Nothing but the Night is a soft-boiled noir fiction that trades criminal intrigue with internal anguish and rumination. Arthur Maxley broods through city streets, monologuing about the joylessness all around him: “The place where he walked was a meaningless, cemented desert with curiously unlifelike configurations all about that obscurely threatened and hemmed him in.” He’s left college and appears to have surrendered to the incessant, electric flow of metropolitan malaise.
“Father, father, father,” he thinks to himself. “What an ugly word.” Sure enough, his father is in town and sent a letter with hopes to meet up for a dinner. He dreads this meeting for many pages, but finally succumbs, all while internally circling around some unspoken family trauma that may lurk at the core of his sulking. Meanwhile, the city “was one gigantic pulse of sound.” “…the great human stream swirled and eddied around him…[And] as if the monotonous pressure of the current had uprooted him, he moved dully into the rushing torrent, a bit of colorless flotsam…”
Considering how Nothing but the Night initially took shape during the noir mystery boom of contemporary literature, it’s fascinating to slowly realize throughout the novella that pulpy tropes are not to blame for all it’s trouble. In fact, it feels as if Williams has trapped a realist protagonist inside a hip new genre and that the novella is an experiment to see how it all plays out. Maxley doesn’t care for dames and he’s not a smooth talker; he’s perturbed and anxious when a woman does approach him in a jazz club: “He felt a brief, tearing gust of panic. Why, he wondered miserably, had he smiled? He did not want to talk to her, did not want her at his table. He neither knew what to say nor what to do upon her imminent arrival.” He’s a miserable character not cut out for the genre in which he’s found himself, and looks endlessly within for a way out.
Although this novella is one where a father’s letter is a “narrow missile” held by “fingers that trembled with ill-repressed hate,” a punch is a “socking, painless crush of flesh and bone,” and a cocktail takes two lines to have a sip (“he embraced the thin stem of his glass with thumb and forefinger, twirled it carefully, lifted it to his lips, and drank”), there’s certainly something here. Despite its overwrought prose, Nothing but the Night is an impressive, youthful work of anti-pulp that manages to simultaneously embrace and push away its genre. Like Maxley, mining his memories for something raw at their source, Williams seeks in popular fiction a similar, unadulterated core.