A constantly changing, convoluted narrative leads the reader to unexpected delights in Frederick Reiken’s ‘Day for Night’

July 3, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 3, 2015

Frederick Reiken’s 2010 book, Day for Night, is hard to characterize. Technically, it’s a series of connected stories; however, it reads like a novel. (The indicia page indicates that three of the 10 chapters were previously published as stand-alone stories.) Each chapter is narrated by a separate character; each is connected in various ways — some of them obvious, others not so — to people or events in other chapters.

The woman at the heart of Day for Night, if such a disparate book can be said to have a heart, is Beverly, a New Jersey physician with two teenage daughters who is poised to adopt Jordan, the 13-year-old son of David, her terminally ill boyfriend. She narrates the opening chapter, in which a young Florida tour guide takes her, David and Jordan to swim with manatees. In the next section, the narrator becomes the tour guide, Tim, whose bandmate, Dee, has spent much of her life fleeing her family, a secretive and mysterious Utah clan.

Chapter 3 takes the form of the deposition of a veteran FBI agent who interviewed Tim and Dee in Salt Lake City because they were seated on an airplane flight next to Katherine, a strangely elusive fugitive suspected in a bombing, a kidnapping and other crimes going back nearly 15 years. The agent later encounters Katherine as she spirits away Dee’s brother, Dillon, a badly injured young man who appears to be a captive of his odd parents.

The other narrators are equally diverse. One is Beverly’s older daughter, Jennifer, a high school senior; another, a Stanford neurologist, Katherine’s lover back in Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, to whom she brings Dillon for assessment; a third, Jordan, who spends a summer romancing an attractive slightly older teenage girl named Dara on a Caribbean island at the same time as his marine biologist father finds himself drawn to Dara’s mother, who happens to be Dillon and Dee’s aunt.

Yet other narrators include Beverly’s lifelong friend, Miriam, who unofficially serves as her fellow World War II refugee’s archivist; a Massachusetts veterinarian named Vicki who flees to a kibbutz on the shores of the Dead Sea after her life suddenly falls apart; Maximilian, a geriatric man — and the father of Michael Rubin, a main character in Reiken’s 2000 novel — whose late-in-life second wife, Doris, is a Holocaust survivor; and finally Amnon Grossman, an Israeli soldier who treads a perilous line between life and death.

Here’s a passage from the opening chapter, narrated by Beverly:

I thought of Jordan and it struck me that this part of his life was going to seem wondrous, and that my Herculean task, if David died, would be to keep this sense of wonder from imploding, turning inward, and reshaping itself as longing and despair. Or perhaps such a task was futile. Perhaps it wasn’t my task at all. What would my task be then and what was wonder anyway?

A nechtiger tog, I thought, and then a door inside my brain opened.

This was a phrase my father used. Biblical in origin, it was Yiddish for “a yesterday’s day,” by which he meant something absurd, silly or impossible. Often sarcastic, sometimes not, the words could substitute for “Don’t bother even thinking about it.” It’s what he’d say if I worried that the friendly talking ravens in a story I loved got angry when I finished the book and closed it. It’s what he’d say each time my mother expressed her wish that we leave Poland and cross the ocean to America.

On a summer night two months before we fled from Poland to Lithuania, he woke me up and took me out to see the glow of the full moon over the Bug floodplain. We’d come to live with his brother, Lejb, after my father left his job at a gymnasium in Warsaw. He’d been a science teacher there. Now he helped Lejb run his small farm and in the evenings he read books. He held my hand as we walked. The moon was casting its glow over the fields that ran beside the river. I had the sense that the bright light was clinging desperately to the earth. And for one purpose — to remake yesterday’s day, which, with a five-year-old’s capacity for literalization, I believed might happen if the full moon glowed bright enough. That night as we walked along the river, I kept waiting, hoping the light would reach its threshold, so that a nechtiger tog would actually appear.

Although most of these characters seem rather ordinary on the outside, all are touched by something wondrous. In some cases, it’s the blossoming of first love, or (as in the preceding passage) the sight of something absurdly beautiful; in others, it’s an unlikely coincidence, or an encounter with someone who seems to have supernatural qualities.

Throughout the book, I worked to puzzle out how all the pieces fit together — and come together they do, in quite satisfying fashion, even if none of the people within the story can truly appreciate its magnificence, or the ways in which they are linked to seemingly total strangers.

In this sense, of course, Day for Night is a lot like life itself: Its grandeur is often lost on participants who are caught up in day-to-day struggles; its mysteries are rarely, if ever, fully revealed. Reiken’s book is admirable because of what it does and how it does it; it’s also admirable in its decision not to spoon-feed its revelations to readers.

The reader who tries to plow through this book like he or she would a formulaic beach read will likely be left baffled or irritated; the reader who puts thought into Day for Night will find it immensely rewarding. I did, and I look forward to enjoying more of Reiken’s books.

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