In Other Words Into That Good Night by Levis Keltner
“Hell is other people.” — Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit
In this famous, often-misinterpreted line, Sartre did not mean that spending time with other people is terrible. What he meant — and later stated for clarification on a 1965 recording of the play — was that, just as it is for No Exit’s three trapped characters, “when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves.”
Sartre effectively summarized the paralyzing middle-school social caste system in which eighth-grade outsider Doug Horolez functions when we first meet him in Levis Keltner’s
Into That Good Night. Like most kids his age who operate on the fringes, Doug is keenly aware of the hierarchies and power disparities in his life. Though he resents the unfairness of the jock-nerd binary, he is not old enough to understand it as temporary — so he has bought into it completely. He especially doesn’t like baseball superstar John Walker and has a hard time feeling sorry for him when John gets diagnosed with terminal cancer. And for all the internal whining about his terrible self-image, Doug isn’t totally friendless. There is a redheaded bookworm of a girl called E. who, as he understands it, allows him to sit near her after school at the library (and then eventually at her house). E. is supremely intellectual, always trying to get Doug to read important books, and she considers the idea of romance annoying. But Doug thinks of E. as his best friend — and he is in love with her. The novel begins in the weeks after E.’s younger sister, Erika, is murdered in the woods.
The engrossing story that ensues concerns a disparate group of adolescents who gravitate to each other — and to the spot in the woods where the murder took place — under the intoxicating glow of belonging. John Walker, also known as Dead Man, wants to solve the crime and avenge Erika’s death, and he selects an unlikely team of people who knew her to assist him. He is so popular, so good at sports, and now so tragic, that they can’t resist — not even Doug, even though he is immediately creeped out by John’s new calling, as well as his New Age-preacher-like demeanor.
The group bonds during their first few days in the woods as they attempt to investigate and piece together what must have happened. Friendships and romances blossom. Soon, they realize they are being watched by someone who wants to scare them off. Fear of being killed by the same perpetrator who went after Erika further seals their loyalty to one another, and especially to John’s vision. Doug, for his part, never buys into any of it. He goes because he wants to be around E. — and soon he wants to be around Tiffany, Erika’s sexually advanced best friend. Later, he goes to the woods because he wants to protect the others from John, who he comes to believe has lost his mind. The kids believe there is evil in the woods, but its nature is a mystery.
It would not be far off to compare the basic summary of Into That Good Night to a Stephen King novel. It bears certain thematic similarities to It, the 1986 horror novel about seven children who band together to fight the evil lurking in the sewers under their town. Keltner’s characters are older than King’s by just a few crucial years, which makes the various sexual explorations among them read as relatively age-appropriate — or at least believable (unlike an infamous scene in It, in which a group of elevenyear-olds engage in penetrative intercourse). In this and other ways, Good Night feels at least a little like a dialogue with It, or perhaps with some larger ideas about kids’ imaginations and the power of hormones, charm, and fear. The ghosts in this novel are not literal, and if there are monsters, it is simply because we meet a lot of people during the process of growing up, and some of them have the capacity to turn into violent sociopaths.
The first two sections of Good Night are so good that you might find yourself staying up late to read — perhaps under the covers with a flashlight. The book is genuinely scary as well as literary. Keltner obviously remembers well the constant heartache of being fourteen. But the final section moves slowly. The actions sequences are oddly laborious. At a certain point, Doug’s internal monologue grows wearisome and repetitive — and Keltner takes a sudden turn into authorial summary, which feels rushed as well as unnecessary. Overall, Into That
Good Night will suck in horror fans as well as those readers more likely to gravitate to tales of everyday, devil-next-door evil. — Jennifer Levin
The engrossing story concerns a disparate group of adolescents who gravitate to each other — and to the spot in the woods where a murder took place — under the intoxicating glow of belonging.