NIGHT NAVIGATION by Ginnah Howard
“Drug dramas. And manic-depression. Hard to know which roller coaster you’re riding.”
Review by Bonnie Brody (NOV 11, 2009)
Ginnah Howard’s Night Navigation is a powerful and unflinching novel about drug addiction and mental illness. It is beautifully written in a terse and spare style that is both rich and evocative. The narrative reminded me of the music of Erik Satie or the pizzicato violin in the andante movement of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. The writing is that beautiful and melodic. It made me rise out of myself into the world that Ms. Howard has created.
The story takes place in a one year time period in upstate New York. Del is a retired high school teacher and artist. She is the mother of 37 year-old Mark who has been diagnosed as a MICA, a dually diagnosed “mentally ill chemical abuser.” Mark is manic depressive and a heroin addict. He has been in and out of rehab and various psychiatric hospitals. As the book begins, Mark is once again wanting to go to detox and then rehab in a therapeutic community. Like a fugue, the chapters switch back and forth between Del and Mark, sharing their thoughts, feelings and actions. They are superimposed yet also separate.
Mark is on a lot of psychotropic medications including Zyprexa (an antipsychotic), neurontin (a mood stabilizer), and an antidepressant. He talks about the various side effects of the medications: weight gain, fuzzy tongue, tardive dyskinesia, an incipient manic episode. He has a history of stealing in order to get money for drugs. He once took Del’s car, worth $8,000 and sold it for $700. He has drug dealers after him trying to get the money that he owes them. When the novel begins, Mark is living with Del, a living situation that is not working out for her. She is terrified every time the phone rings – that it will be one of Mark’s dealers, that someone will be calling to tell her about a crisis, or that she will be notified that Mark is dead. Del is an enabler and is working hard to let go of Mark, to not buy into his life issues. “When the phone rings, think marsupial: once he gets too big for the pouch, out you go.” She is torn between being “Mama Marsupial” and being “Mama Bear.” What makes it so difficult for Del to let go of Mark is that her husband, Lee, committed suicide when her sons were boys. Mark’s brother, Aaron, also committed suicide seven years ago. Del is terrified that she will lose Mark, too.
There is a lot about twelve-step programs in this book and the author is very familiar with them. She writes about AA, NA and Al-Anon with a knowledge that is authentic and wise. When Del is thinking about the family program at Mark’s rehab center, in which family “are integrated into the clinical process as thoroughly as possible on an encouraged voluntary basis,” her response is “As thoroughly as possible . . .on an encouraged voluntary basis. Between these carefully edited phrases, this chorus: Night after night we expected to find out this person was dead. Hundreds of promises have been broken. You want us to open up, on an encouraged voluntary basis, to hope again, as thoroughly as possible to feel that pain once more.” For Del, every day is a challenge. She tries to avoid the telephone, she has to walk past the cabin where Aaron was living when he took his life. “What happens in her gut when the phone rings and whether she can look up this hill or not are the two barometers of how she’s really feeling.”
Del’s life is paved with crisis after crisis. Mark wants everything done right away, yesterday if possible. Del jumps to accommodate Mark’s requests and demands. This makes her relationship with her long-time partner, Richard, rocky. He wants her to have clearer boundaries and limits with Mark. He doesn’t really get the pressure and fear that Del is living under. Ms. Howard is carefully non-judgmental about Del and Mark, presenting their situations and outcomes in a compassionate and straight-forward way. Even when Del repeats the same errors in judgment that allow her to be used by Mark, there is no condescension or sense of “I told you so” in the story. Concomitantly, Mark is not judged when he relapses or acts in a profoundly wrong manner. These are two people who love each other, trying to get through their days, one day at a time – – difficult days that Ms. Howard knows no one but them can truly understand.
It is poignant when Del is sitting in her living room and “She sees she’s pulled the cushion over to rest on her knees. The pillow to shield against a head-on.” For this is the stuff of her life – – head-on collisions with no seat belt. The author understands addicts and addictive thinking, the way that an addict manipulates, is self-centered and loses sight of right and wrong in the desire to get the next fix. She realizes how difficult it is for Mark to try one more stint in rehab, this time in what he calls a “junkie boot camp. Going to tear you down; then build you back up. Mortification and absolution.” Of course Mark isn’t able to cut the mustard in this type of environment but this is not held against him. He is an addict and addicts do what they have to do to get their way, always. As the saying goes in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Fake it till you make it.” It’s all faking, all the time, until real recovery sets in. For Mark, he’s a fledgling at all this and has never had any real time being clean and sober. He’s never made it to true recovery.
Anger is a huge issue for both Del and Mark. They have difficulty discussing Lee or Aaron’s suicide with one another and their anger comes out sideways at one another or turned inward against themselves. One day, while in rehab, Mark is looking in a mirror, “He is the only one left in the bathroom. The face is a death mask. Shifting into Aaron’s face. All his teeth ache. Stuff surging up in front of him that he’s pretty sure isn’t there. Dad in the pole barn, blood all over. Aaron, drifting down. And always the low hum.” The ghosts of Aaron and Lee are always in the background of Mark and Del’s lives. They live in despair, fear, if only’s, what ifs, and quiet desperation. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be the only two members left of a nuclear family, the only half of that family that has not succumbed to suicide.
Ms. Howard knows mental illness well. She describes the incessant smoking that most manic depressives and schizophrenics need in order to balance their minds. Mark says to himself at one point, “The trembles are back to moderate and transmissions from outer space reduced to occasional.” And this is a fairly good day for him. On bad days he hears click-clacking, humming, and feels like his head might explode. His mouth is like mush and it’s hard to speak. Del hates to see Mark like this and she sees herself as a rescuer even if she can’t be a savior. It is the only action she can live with – – for what would happen to her if Mark took the same route as his brother and father.
One might think this is a depressing book and in some ways it certainly is. However, it is a book about hope and resiliency, about love and coping, and about acceptance and second chances. As Roethke, the poet said, “What is madness but nobility of the soul at odds with circumstance.” With Mark and Del, we have two noble souls struggling to survive. Thriving is still a long way down the road. But neither of them give up. They keep at it, one day at a time. This is a remarkable book in its reality and starkness, in its ability to light the way for two tormented souls. It is a book that kept me up all night reading because I could not put it down.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 34 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (April 14, 2009)|
|AMAZON PAGE:||Night Navigation|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Ginnah Howard|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||A Cure For Night by Justin Peacock
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- Night Navigation (April 2009)