“Night Letter: A Novel” by Sterling Watson

With Night Letter (2023), Florida author Sterling Watson proves once more that he is a master storyteller and an exemplary writer. Set in the Sixties in the Florida Panhandle, the novel’s focus is on its sole narrator, an eighteen-year-old youth just released from six years in a Nebraska reform school. This narrator, Travis Hollister, tells his story in first person all the while managing to convey not just his own soul, but also what makes the other major characters tick. A taut thriller with a noir gloss, Night Letter balances revenge with loyalty, and violence with redemption, to create a glorious, evocative coming-of-age tale. Not to be missed, this is an excellent novel.

Like another fabulous Florida writer, Harry Crews, Watson shows readers that a novel can be both beautiful and brutal. Like Crews, Watson writes with an acute awareness of the darkness in humankind. Yet with his considerable talents, Watson spins a troubled teen youth with more than a single darkness in his past into a believable, sympathetic protagonist. And like Crews, Watson exhibits a keen knowledge of his Florida people and the racial, sexual, and class conflicts that rumble under the surface of nearly everything. From all that is sinister in the story, Watson—like Crews—raises up something radiant.

Watson has demonstrated with prior books that he is a master at building suspense in a slow yet powerful fashion. By his deft use of tone and foreshadowing, Watson lets his readers know early on that something intense is going to happen. While the tensions build, readers wait for the other shoe to drop. Yet when it does, the “who, what, when, and how” will still shock.

Night Letter is a sequel to Watson’s Sweet Dream Baby (2004), which first introduces Travis Hollister as a confused, naïve and intense twelve-year-old boy. Night Letter can certainly be read and understood without first reading Sweet Dream Baby but reading both results in far deeper insight into Travis—and doubles the enjoyment of reading a Watson novel.

In Sweet Dream Baby, Travis, as a child on the brink of a troubled adolescence, is sent from his mid-western home to his grandparents in a small Florida town near Panama City. To his disappointment, the town is not on the Gulf of Mexico, but inland, though near a river. He is only there for one summer—but oh, what a summer. Sent away while his father finishes law school in the Midwest and his Japanese mother endures life in a hospital for the mentally ill, Travis is bewildered and hurt. His grandfather, the town sheriff, is a stern man with a brutish side, while Travis’s grandmother is a sweet, church-going lady with a softness in her heart for the boy.

Travis’s aunt, Delia, steals the show and the boy’s heart. Delia is sixteen, bored, beautiful, and wild. The town’s rich boy (privileged, haughty, and bound for Princeton) and the town’s poor boy (a mechanic adopting a James Dean-hood style and bound for nowhere) are both obsessed with Delia. How far each will go to try to capture her creates one of the tense plot lines, but what happens between Travis and Delia dominates the emotional underpinnings and the action in the novel. What develops in their story is shocking, brutal, and yet somehow inevitable—and at times decidedly tender.

In Night Letter, Travis, now six years older and a veteran of a tough reform school, is set loose after serving his sentence with only a set of clothes and a handful of money. Sent to reform school for what was really a radical act of self-defense in his Midwestern home, Travis survived his six years by keeping his head low and building his physical strength—the latter will prove most valuable as the story in Night Letter advances. Travis’s father is now a lawyer—“the” must-have lawyer, readers learn—back in the small Florida town where Travis first met Delia. Out of the reform school, Travis does not immediately return to Florida and certainly does not look his father up. First, he hitchhikes to California to spy on his Japanese mother. Only then does he return to Panama City, still avoiding his nearby father and Delia, with whom he remains obsessed.

Travis finds work in a seafood restaurant as a bus boy. He rents a shabby efficiency at a tourist camp run by an alcoholic widow. He becomes friends with Emil, the Black cook, and enemies with Jimmy, the dishwasher with Klan ties. All too soon, Travis is caught in the net of a sixteen-year-old girl named Dawnell. Against all odds, Dawnell has managed to still be a virgin, but Travis will have his work cut out in protecting her—not just from Jimmy and his ilk, but also from her father and brother. Of course, then too, Travis must confront Delia and his own father. All these plot tangents move inexorably toward a violent and brutal climax, with not one but two shockingly vicious actions.

Undeniably, Travis is the hero—or perhaps the anti-hero—of the story but Dawnell and the alcoholic widow are well drawn and fascinating characters, both far overshadowing Delia. Upon first meeting Dawnell, Travis wonders why she is not worried about being stranded in town, but then he notes, “Maybe the world is a welcoming place for a girl with thirty years of personality on a sixteen-year-old frame.” Dawnell, with her hardscrabble life, refuses to be trapped in the vile, limited world of her dirt poor and ignorant motherless family. But at sixteen, she makes a terrible mistake in trying to find her way out of that life. Her mistake will have repercussions that trap Travis and others into an expanding circle of jeopardy and violence.

The widow takes on a motherly role. As Travis comes to understand and empathize with her, she is rounded out into a heroine in her own right. Widowed young, she never really recovered from the loss of her husband and owns a run-down tourist camp, described as “the domicile of the drifters, shrimpers, lost tourists, and paper mill shift workers.” But her interest in, and support of Travis and Dawnell, will help them in ways Travis would not have imagined.

Emil, the Black cook, serves both as a well-drawn character to admire and a plot device to expose the precarious balance between danger and acceptance a Black man—even one as respected as Emil—walked in the Florida Panhandle in the Sixties. His fate seems preordained in some ways, yet still manages to shock and horrify. That his friendship with Travis is the catalyst for what happens is undeniable, but then Emil was always perilously situated in his time and place.

Watson, in discussing his characters in Night Letter, said, “They, like all of my central characters, begin the story with their backs against the wall.” He added, “I love them for their stubborn belief that things can get better and for the survival of love in their battered hearts.”

Through the taut thriller/noir fabric of this novel, Watson writes with a precision and eloquence befitting the best of literature:

The Widow already looks somewhat revived. Has she slyly partaken of the cure, those frosty shot glasses, those little sin bullets, even before calculating the measure of this tall vodka and pink grapefruit juice? She sits at my little desk and looks at the two of us [Dawnell and Travis] on the bed.

“My two little waifs,” she says. She’s already got a bit of a slur that makes Dawnell and me sound like two ruffled, four-footed creatures from the Russian steppes. I have more years than Dawnell, and aching hurt where Jimmy’s pool cue puddles the muscle that knits my neck to my shoulder, and the lucky guess I made about the feral brother with the rifle adapted for night killing, seem to me to constitute a passport into the same adulthood that wraps the Widow in wisdom, but I don’t protest. Let’s see what she has to say.

Watson, who is the author of nine novels, including The Committee, sets all his novels in Florida, but not on the beach. He says, “Many have noticed that Florida is a place of extremes, and extremes are good for fiction—harsh dichotomies of good and evil, betrayal and loyalty, innocence and its violation. I placed Night Letter on my native ground to continue to explore the themes that have always obsessed me: the redemptive power of love and friendship, the possibility of escape to a better place, and the impossibility of ever escaping the past.”

Similarly, Travis, while on a car ride with Emil, observes that: “I think Florida gets the crazies, good and bad, because it’s the last place you can go in one direction and still be American.”

Along with his novels, Watson’s short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous prestigious publications. He was the director of the creative writing program at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida for twenty years and now teaches at Lasell University in Massachusetts. He lives in Gulfport, Florida.

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