Two weeks ago I offered to pick out some books for a friend, and decided to read my favorite one from the selection I’d pulled. My optimism when I finished the 10th Wheel of Time book has worn off so I was looking for something new and different to get me back into reading. I’m not at all familiar with the author Armistead Maupin, but the back cover describes The Night Listener as a “complex, vertiginous world” that would deal with parent relationships, break-ups, and truth. Sounded good to me!

The Night Listener

The narrator and main character of The Night Listener is Gabriel Noone, a 50-something gay radio host living in San Francisco with his husband Jess. He hosts a late-night show reading his stories, wonderful fiction stories about the truth of life (although the “fiction” often mirrors his own life). Currently stuck on his next book project and trying to deal with his failing marriage to a man dying of AIDS, Gabriel is waiting for something to distract him and spark his imagination again.

One day, after Jess has moved out, Gabriel receives a book in the mail. It’s a chilling memoir written by a 13 year old boy who was abused by his parents, and Gabriel is touched by the honesty of the writing. With nothing else happening in his life, Gabriel reaches out to the young author, Pete, and a strange friendship soon turns into a powerful father/son relationship…with a boy Gabriel has never met in person. When he tells friends and family about his young friend they are worried about the nature of the relationship–should a 13 year old boy who was sexually abused by his father and father’s friends be talking to a gay adult male? And some people begin to wonder if Pete even exists, or is he being played by a crazy woman hungry for attention? And does it even matter, as long as Gabriel can find his way in life again thanks to Pete?

The relationships in The Night Listener are incredibly complicated, which was the most enjoyable part. Gabriel and Jess have been together for years, and have fought together against Jess’ AIDS the whole time; now that Jess has gained his health back, what reason do they have to stay together? Gabriel and his father have always ignored any emotions, especially when dealing with his sexual orientation–the polite, upper-class southern society they come from doesn’t “do that,” so Gabriel grows up feeling betrayed by his father. Yet Gabriel’s father is still dealing with the betrayal of his own father’s suicide when he was a teenager. Gabriel’s mother was a wonderfully patient woman yet she allowed her husband to bully the family into ignoring their own feelings to protect the father, and he hasn’t ever forgiver her for allowing that. Pete is deathly sick and can only communicate with people by phone or online, yet he seems to have more life and joy than any other person. Gabriel and Pete quickly become friends, and Pete becomes the only person he can trust with his feelings about growing old, being gay, Jess leaving, and his father’s inability to express love.

This was a difficult book to read. Pete’s story is horrifying, and even without all the details (there are many hints that the worst abuse was kept out of his book) it broke my heart to read about a child betrayed by his parents. Gabriel’s relationship with Jess is less defined by their sexuality and more about how strongly two people can become dependent upon each other. They love each other so much and have been through so many difficult things together, but does a complicated history mean people have to stay together? What responsibility does a parent have to provide a secure and emotionally nurturing home, even when that parent can’t deal with his or her own feelings? So many questions!

I finished this book several days ago, and still can’t decide how I feel. I’m annoyed hardly any answers were provided in the end, but I also love how realistically open the ending was. For readers who love complex characters, this book is highly recommended.