Things don’t always follow a straight line. “Night Navigation” by Ginnah Howard is the middle novel in a trilogy. The first part — entitled “Rope and Bone” — appeared as short stories in several literary journals and on her website. The final third, “Common Descent”, is a work-in-progress. There is a unity of setting, for they all take place largely in rural upstate New York, and some of the same characters pass through all the works of the trilogy. But “Night Navigation” is Ginnah Howard’s debut novel, a powerful and singular work.
The two principal characters of “Night Navigation” are Del Merrick, a retired art teacher, and her son Mark, a 37-year old man suffering from manic depression and drug addiction. The buildings in their homestead are a comforting environment for Del, a slovenly sanctuary for Mark. As the novel opens it is a winter night and Mark is in need of detoxification but the closest detox facility is hours away, somewhere to the north. Though Del fears driving the icy highways she piles Mark into the car and navigates up Route 11, still unsure of their destination. The opening chapters of “Night Navigation” portend the harrowing action through the rest of the book: a man alternating between angry self-possession and helplessness, and the mother who stands by him even in his worst moments despite the accusation that in her caring she has become his enabler. Del has already lost both a husband and their son Aaron to suicide.
All the way to Sidney, her shoulders were in count-down, but when she makes the turn back onto the gravel bank, she realizes they’ve unlocked. She looks up toward the bluff and catches the slant of Aaron’s roof rising up. What happens in her gut when the phone rings and whether she can look up this hill or not are the two barometers of how she’s really feeling. For years, when she drove up this road, she had to look away.
The chapters of “Night Navigation” alternate between the experience and outlook of Del and Mark as he seeks and then rejects the help of friends. The characters who populate Ginnah Howard’s novel all carry a sense of verisimilitude, such as Rozmer, a recovering addict whose counsel Mark both seeks and avoids. Then there is Richard. He is Del’s neighbor, friend and lover. He is a steady, hard-working, super-competent guy who can always speak frankly to Del. Richard is solid and sensible. He is also suffering from prostate cancer.
And there is also Luke. He, too, is steady and supportive and is truly Mark’s best friend; some of Mark’s clearest moments are while speaking to Luke.
“Here’s the big question for you, Luke: Why is everyone trying desperately to hang on to his own twisted concept of reality?” Luke looks back at him, his ears raised, his head cocked to the side. “That’s why you’re the best — you know to just let me talk. It’s stressful when [Del] puts up resistance. Even if she doesn’t say anything, her eyes get that ‘I don’t believe you’ glaze.”
Mark’s positive relationship with his dog is not an unsual bond for a person who is mentally ill. The life of the mentally illl may also include treatment centers, hospitals, 12-step programs and the recurring need for exceptional care. The mental health workers in “Night Navigation” all seem to be on the way to burnout, and the institutions (when Mark can get into one) are often landmarks of suffering. “The room’s the size of a big closet. Two metal bunks, a row of grey lockers. A window that only goes up a few inches. Heavy-duty glass that’s not glass. Itchy gray army blankets like they used to have at basketball camp. Four hooks for towels. But everything clean-clean.”
There is also precision in the detail of Ginnah Howard’s descrpitions of life in upstate New York, including the chapters describing Del’s attempts to rid her country home of a bat infestation.
Ginnah Howard turned to writing after twenty-seven years as a high school English teacher. Her life has also been marked by family crises, suicide and work with Al-Anon and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She lives in Gilbertsville, NY (an Otsego County village that has attracted many artists and writers and shows up in “Night Navigation” as Danford). Her writing has twice been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. Ginnah joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to speak about “Night Navigation” and respond to listeners’ queries.