July 20, 2019

The Occasionally Brilliant Work of John Williams

“ARTHUR MAXLEY, moneyed burnout, looks across the room of a club one evening and becomes aware of a girl with “perfectly formed breasts.” Her lipstick is red, as is her dress; she has, when they begin to talk, a soothing voice. She is, for Maxley, a “woman of mystery whom all adored and no one knew.” Later, he will go with this woman (her name is Claire) to her apartment, and, as she begins to embrace him, punch her repeatedly in the face. Then somebody interrupts, punching him in the face, and Arthur Maxley wanders off, seemingly unaffected by either of these experiences.

The set of perfect breasts and their aftermath form the back half of John Williams’s disowned debut novel, Nothing but the Night, which follows Arthur for a day as he wakes up from a nightmare and then goes about his business, eating vengefully at a diner and harassing his maid. He is estranged from his father for mysterious reasons which have something to do with the death of his mother. He meets up with an acquaintance, a very broadly written gay man, toward whom Arthur feels “active dislike, even spite.” Unsatisfying encounters with both his friend and his father lead him ultimately to the club, and to Claire.

How one ought to approach a book which has been rejected by its author is a delicate question. Certainly, Williams deserves credit for realizing that what he’d written was fairly awful. But while he might not have wanted the book to be republished, now that it has been, it’s worth asking the degree to which Nothing but the Night illuminates aspects of Williams’s mature work. Everything that makes his other books so terrible, it turns out, is here.”

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