- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

How many people look the way they sound? I can think of three: The lovely (and late) Suzanne Pleshette, Pee Wee Herman, and Phyllis Diller. But then the mind goes blank. It’s much easier to think of people who do NOT look like they sound, which may be one of the reasons why radio, especially, late night radio, continues to have a hold on us.

Ever been seduced by a voice? Ever fall for someone solely because of the way they sound on the phone or the radio? ‘Fess up now. Sure you have; we all have. But if you met them, were you pleased or disappointed? Come on, tell the truth. Unless you are one lucky person, you were, just like the rest of us, disappointed. Why? Because the hard light of reality rarely reveals the same comely countenance conjured up by our fertile imaginations.

Elizabeth Hay knows this. In fact, Elizabeth Hay knows a lot of things, because she’s a very good observer of people and a very good writer. She’s also a very good writer who happens to be Canadian, as opposed to “a Canadian writer,” which can sound like a put down. While she’s treated California and New York City in other books, in “Late Nights On Air” she’s back home, but this time way up north in Yellowknife, capital of the rugged Northwest Territories.

It’s early June, 1975, and Harry Boyd, once a big name in radio but now reduced to being night man on Yellowknife’s only station, is struck by the voice of a new female announcer. “He listened to the slow, clear, almost unnatural confidence, the low-pitched sexiness, the elusive accent as she read the local news. More than curious, already in love, he walked into the station the next day precisely at the same time.”

A most fortunate exception to the rule, Dido Paris, the new announcer, is “an unreasonably beautiful woman.” Harry’s fall into love is complete.

When Dido looks at him for the first time what she sees is a man with a “boyish gleam in his eye. But he wasn’t boyish, he was balding, bespectacled, square-jawed. She noticed his cauliflower ear.

“‘You’re Harry Boyd,’ she said.

“And she too, had imagined another face — a big, bushy head to go with the relaxed, late-night growl that she heard only as she fell asleep. The man who’d once been a big name in radio, she’d been told. He was shorter than she’d expected, and his hands trembled.”

That last bit, the hands that tremble, is vintage Elizabeth Hay. There’s always some very real flaw with all of her characters, and she’s always willing to point it out. In Harry’s case, there are several and they’re obvious. In the case of Dido Paris, there are more than several, but they are very well hidden.

And they do not bode well, for her or for anyone else, man or woman, who is drawn into her orbit. Besides, even if the danger signs were as clear and unmistakable as the big red “ON AIR” sign over the door of the broadcast booth, it would make no difference because Harry is smitten.

Despite Harry’s less-than-sterling reputation, when the station manager runs off with a waitress, Harry is made acting manager, and in that capacity meets and hires young Gwen, another central character. He also manages a motley crew of radio types that run the gamut from Eddy, your basic brooding talented but almost anti-social James Dean type who, like Harry, falls for Dido, to Eleanor, the sweet slightly older receptionist, the most normal and sensible person in the bunch, and wait’ll you see where that gets her.

The main action of the novel, which takes place during the summer of 1975, is set against a backdrop that includes two historical events. The first event is the Arctic explorations of the Englishman John Hornby, the so-called Hermit of the North, who, with his two devoted companions, starved to death near the Thelon River in 1927. The second actual event is Justice Thomas Berger’s official inquiry — which encompassed the summer of 1975 — into whether a gas pipeline should be built across the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, an inquiry that concluded with his recommendation not to build the pipeline. These two “true facts” can be read as representing the folly of passion and the triumph of reason.

In deciding the pipeline controversy, Justice Berger listened to all sides and came, oh so carefully, to a rational conclusion. But in “Late Nights on Air” the main characters, all of whom are on the run from something unpleasant, try to sort out their lives and, they hope, also their futures, with various degrees of success. In an attempt at some sort of cleansing ritual, as the summer is waning, Harry, Gwen, Eleanor, and Ralph Cody, a quiet older man who reviews books on air, take a six week canoe trip into the Arctic wilds. (I tried to imagine a similar quartet from WETA-FM doing the same, and I couldn’t even get a picture).

The trip is cleansing and cathartic, but, like so much in the lives of all the people in “Late Nights On Air,” it doesn’t end well. The same could be said about this otherwise fine novel. Ms. Hay does a fine job of creating conflicts for each and every one of the main characters, but her resolution of them doesn’t meet the same high standard, and in some cases seems almost to have been dashed off, as if she’d tired of her own creations.

And she’s overly fond of foreshadowing, as in calling a mangy old wolf that strolls past the paddlers, “A harbinger, had they but known.” There’s also the problem of too many people getting too many good lines too often, especially Gwen, the youngest. Real people don’t talk that way all the time. (However, that may be one of the reasons why a Canadian television producer recently bought the book as the basis of a series).

Those caveats aside, there is more than enough to recommend “Late Nights On Air,” Elizabeth Hay’s fifth novel. For one thing, it’s a very passionate book, and I don’t mean sexual passion. All the characters are passionate about the outdoors (which they don’t call “the environment”), and most of them are also passionate about radio. As Harry tells Gwen, early on, radio is like poetry. “At its best it could be, while television was like a blockbuster novel: one made you think and feel, the other dulled your mind. ‘A radio program isn’t a ‘show,’ he went on. ‘It’s not showbiz, it’s not an assault. It’s about one person learning something interesting and telling it to somebody else.’”

And the only place you can see that person is in your mind, which is, almost without exception, a good thing.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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