- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

NIGHT NAVIGATION
By Ginnah Howard
Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, $24, 304 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

Ever wonder how many Frank McCourt wannabes are out there, retired English teachers who wait until the last bell has rung before they write their first novel and try to get it published? That the success-to-failure ratio has to be hugely disproportionate is the first reason to salute the accomplishment of Ginnah Howard, who taught high school English for 27 years and didn’t start writing any fiction, much less a full-length novel, until she was in her mid-40s. The second, and by far the more important, reason to salute her is that her novel is very, very good.

“Night Navigation,” the story of an almost-year in the lives of a 62-year-old mother and her 37-year-old drug addict son, is so smooth a telling of a rough ride that you’d think it was the author’s fourth, fifth or sixth book, not her first. As a novelist friend of mine used to say about fiction she admired, “You can’t see the stitches.”

In “Night Navigation,” the long-suffering and heroically decent mother is Del, her addict son is Mark, his younger-by-two-years brother is Aaron, or rather was Aaron, just as their father “was” Lee. In 1977, 25 years before the time the action in this novel takes place, Lee took his own life, as did Aaron, almost 20 years later. Little wonder Del can’t stop mothering Mark.

Haunted by these horrors, Del gives Mark too many chances and too much rope. But, when you’ve already lost a husband and a son, what is the proper balance between support and discipline? If she closes that last door, will Mark give up, stop knocking, and follow in the silent footsteps of his father and brother? Any parent, alone or married, who has ever followed a troubled teen into a troubled adulthood knows the gut-and-heart-wrenching anguish that can follow even a semi-tough love decision. It’s hard to sleep at night when you fear that call at 2:30 in the morning.

Fortunately for Del, she is not entirely alone. She has Richard, her man friend, in her life. Strong, capable, and as steady a rock as the other men in her life were shaky, Richard has his own house and his own life, and long ago came to the conclusion that Del is her son’s chief enabler, not his savior. “He calls, you jump,” he tells her.

As the book opens, it’s March, which in upstate New York means it is definitely still winter, especially out in the country where two years ago, despite strong misgivings based on many more years of experience, she allowed a wasted Mark to live in the stone house that his father had built, the house she and Mark and Aaron had moved into a year after Lee killed himself. But Mark has gone incommunicado, and she has to go to him.

“The house is cold. He doesn’t look at her, just sits hunched at the kitchen table, with the hood of his sweatshirt up: under cover. Her son. He is even thinner than when he left. The stink of cigarettes, something rotting in the dark of a cupboard, and the sink is right to the top with dirty dishes, hardened strings of spaghetti, grease congealed in a pan. …

“The wood box is empty. She knows, without even going in there, what the bottom of the tub will look like. One whole end of the pole barn will be stacked high with trash, a month’s worth of garbage, leaking random pools on the floor. And all of it is pretty much how she thought it would be given what he was up to when she left.”

You get the picture. A different mother — not necessarily a lesser one — might well have, probably should have, cut the cord at this point, but not Del. Mark says he’s ready for detox, and she agrees to help him, even though she knows his resolve could blow away in the next strong wind of indecision or paranoia. For Mark isn’t just a drug addict — morphine and heroin his drugs of choice — he is also bipolar. But she agrees, even when she finds out she, a self-described “nervous driver” who hates to take anything but side roads, will have to do all the driving on the nine-hour trip to the detox facility.

From March until June, in alternating mother-son chapters, we follow Mark’s will-he-won’t-he make it saga. Along the way, we learn the history of this terribly unfortunate family. Clearly, Del has brought none of this on herself. Indeed, she could live quite a nice life she’s an artist in several mediums, has a fine support group of female friends, and Richard, whom she loves. But she can’t turn her back on her first-born son, and in chapter after chapter and episode after episode, we are shown — not told — what it must be like to have a junkie for an adult child. And how does it all turn out? Even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell.

Twenty-seven years of teaching at the high school level could well have given the author all the material she needed to anchor her book in what comes across, on page after page, as unrelenting truth. But she tips us off that she’s been there personally by dedicating the book “In Memory of Michael Cope Howard.” (“Cope,” how ironic a name is that?) And, in a note to reviewers, the publisher says the book is based on Ginnah Howard’s own life experience. How hard this must have been to write — and also, one hopes, how freeing.

When asked, in an interview, if “Night Navigation” is based on her own life, Ms. Howard replied, “… the core of the story springs from real events in my own family’s life: suicide, and all of this complicated by the co-occurrence of mental illness and substance abuse. Like Del Merrick, the mother in Night Navigation, I have received many calls in the night, driven many miles on snowy roads to support meetings: Al-Anon, where I’ve been encouraged to ‘let go,’ and to National Alliance on Mental Illness groups, where I’ve been advised to ‘hang on.’

“Perhaps all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, but in any home where one person usurps or is given more than a fair share of the oxygen, the others must find ways to go on breathing: denial, secrets, control, use, anger.… As a writer, no question my anxiety, my concern for my children, my sometimes longing to escape and leave no forwarding address, were the initial energy that caused me to try to make this world on the page, but right from the beginning, the story came to me as a novel: a fugue in two alternating voices — that of a 37-year-old man and his mother. By working in the third person, by imagining the interior of this man, I was able to enter places, to walk around in rooms where I could never have gone as myself.”

That she was able (in her first novel) to go there at all is a major accomplishment, but even greater is the fact that she was able to take us with her. Ginnah Howard is a writer to watch.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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