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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better…Samuel Beckett

On August 8th I received email from Ted Couillard’s son. (I mentioned him in last week’s blog.) In going through his deceased father’s things, he found an unfinished letter to me and sent the pages in PDF. Eerie to see them because they match the cover of my abandoned novel, Long Night’s Journey.

This novel took me years to write. When I didn’t win a contest last December, I abandoned it to a bottom file drawer. Earlier I had asked a writer, physician, and judge to read the novel. And in the manuscript box at the bottom of my file were their three testimonials. The first one is from a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s program, a Stanford Stegner fellow, and someone from whom I took writing courses. He wrote:

“As a script doctor, novelist, and educator (in the field of writing), I on occasion cross paths with a story or manuscript that has about it a singular, captivating character, one far larger than its parts. Gail Kenna’s Long Night’s Journey is that sort of story. An epistolary novel set in a Venezuelan prison, it chronicles the efforts of an alienated, once-drug addicted father to reconnect with his teenaged daughter through correspondence. There are none of the usual cliched prison drama tropes here, no clever plans for escape, no unrealistic manipulations of prison administrators, no stoic characters mindlessly bouncing balls off walls for days at a time.

Here, in Ms. Kenna’s novel, is the scalding and difficult prison life she came to be familiar with from her work in Venezuela, so in the particulars there is a great, and deep, subtext. Kenna’s hero, Nate, a one-time attorney, daily must survive the twisted and lethal prison system. While he does that, he finds refuge in writing to his daughter, which is the foreground of the story.

Nate writes about his addiction, his failure to be a father, his failure as a human being about life. This he does in part through a shared exploration of the one book he has with him: Melville’s Moby Dick. In it, he finds his own obsessions, his once-singular mania, his earlier blindness. This melding of Nate’s vast and far-reaching sensibility with the gritty and real world of the Venezuelan prison system creates a wonderful, singular, and thoroughly engaging frisson.

Long Night’s Journey is that novel of seemingly disparate parts, out of which reading magic is made. I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

An emeritus professor of internal medicine in his page- long testimonial ended with this paragraph.

“In Long Night’s Journey, author Gail Kenna presents an epistolary novel portraying a father’s intense love, the monotony in a prison fraught with filth and violence, his efforts to atone for allowing his compulsive substance abuse to tear apart the family, and his desperate efforts to remain hopeful and committed to living. At book’s end, a reader will have a strong affection for father and daughter, a deep appreciation of the insights offered in the exchange of letters, and beautiful allusions to the classics.”

Lastly, a California State judge who presided over drug courts sent me the following. Now retired, she read the novel twice. Here are fragments from her testimonial.

Long Night’s Journey captured the monomania of the addict and his willingness to risk all for the fix…. The regrets and despair and sordidness of his life in prison are very real…. Nate clings to Melville’s Ishmael as though he is the life raft that will enable survival… The father and only child bond is beautifully realized. This novel asks lots of questions which every good book should inspire. Worthy of publication for sure.”

Okay, Samuel Beckett, I will try again. These three readers have encouraged me to unbury the novel, do some editing, and try to find an agent. Ted Couillard is not the character in the novel. But Nate Moore only arose because of my friendship with Ted. And if the book is ever published, it will be dedicated to the imprisoned attorney I met in Caracas in Reten La Planta in fall 1991, and with whom I remained in contact until his recent death.

Next week: Two novels by John Banville and Virginia Woolf, with both by the sea.

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