Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


In the Night Room by Peter Straub


Rating: (Recommended)




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Peter Straub straddles the boundaries of the real and the unreal in his new novel, In the Night Room. Both cerebral and entertaining, In the Night Room explores the ambiguous relationship between a writer and the characters created and the linkages between nature and art. A well-written page turner, In the Night Room allows readers to think, relax and become tense all at the same time.


Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 10, pp. 41-47:


The big house behind the gated wall at the end of Guilderland Road had required significant repairs at the time of purchase, mainly to the roof and the wraparound porch, and Mitchell’s cur­rent business trip had seemed to all parties an advantageous period in which to get as much done as possible. Perhaps rashly, Willy had supported this schedule, thinking that she would be able to keep an eye on things while she got a feel for the house she was going to share with her new husband. Now, as she drove through the gate to what might almost have been a construction site, Willy wished she had never agreed to camp out in the house while Mitchell cruised around Europe.

Two pickup trucks bristling with ladders and lengths of lumber stood on the patchy, soon-to-be-revitalized grass near the curving gravel drive. Short rows of roofing tiles lay near a tall ladder leaning against the left side of the house. A lot more lumber had been piled up on the far side of the house, and men with carpenter’s belts roamed across the roof and beneath the porch, hammering as they went. The branches of a Japanese maple half-obscured a third pickup. It belonged to the Santolini brothers, whom Mitchell had hired to doctor his property’s extensive trees, initially by hacking away the thick foliage that had grown up around them. Unlike Dellray Contractors—whose small army of worker ants had arrived in the other pickups—the Santolini Brothers had only two employ­ees, themselves. The day before, Willy had glanced out the kitchen window just in time to see Rocky Santolini smashing Vincent San­tolini’s head into the trunk of the oak tree that dominated the great sweep of lawn to the right of the house. The Santolinis did that sort of thing all the time, it turned out; they got some kind of horrible pleasure from bloodying each other’s faces. Willy derived none from the sight of it. The idea that it might be her responsibility to terminate their brawls made her feel doomed and twitchy.

Entering the scene through the open garage door at the moment Willy rolled up alongside one of the Deliray pickups came scowling Roman Richard Spilka, Mitchell’s number two right-hand man, right behind lizardlike Giles Coverley. Spilka served as a sometime bodyguard and general—what was the word?—factotum. In his dark suits and T-shirts, Roman Richard looked as massive and sour as a bouncer at a Russian nightclub. The permanent three-day whiskers on his pasty jowls, his louring eyes, communicated intense moral authority. (Roman Richard had pulled the Santolinis apart within seconds.)

“Put your car in the garage,” Spilka said. “It’s gonna rain again. What were you doing, anyhow?”

I was going to liberate my dead daughter from a produce warehouse out on Union Street, she thought of saying. Then she considered telling him to mind his own business. Unfortunately, it had become clear that, in Roman Richard Spilka’s mind, monitoring Willy’s ac­tions was one of his professional functions.

“I went shopping,” she said. “Would you care to inspect my bags?”

“You should park in the garage,” he said.

Willy drove past him and into the garage. Roman Richard watched as she got out of her car and moved around to the trunk to remove the grocery bags. For an awkward and uncomfortable moment, she imagined that he was going to offer to help her, but no, he was just having a Testosterone Moment. Roman Richard often glanced at her chest when he thought she wouldn’t notice, usually with a puzzled air she understood all too well. Roman Richard was wondering how Mitchell could be attracted to a woman with such an unremarkable chest.

To put him in his place, she asked, “Heard anything from the boss lately?”

“He called while you were out. There’s probably a voice mail on your line.”

Shortly after buying the house, Mitchell had installed a compli­cated new telephone system. Willy had her own private line; they shared a joint line; Mitchell’s assistant, Giles Coverley, had a line that rang in his office; and a fourth line that was dedicated to Mitchell’s business calls rang everywhere in the house but Willy’s office. She was forbidden to use this line, as she was forbidden to enter Mitchell’s office, which took up most of the third floor. In the glimpse she had once been granted through a half-open door, the office looked old-fashioned, opulent in a leather-and-rosewood manner. That made perfect sense to Willy. If Mitchell Faber, who had the taste of someone who fears that he has no taste at all, were to redesign the world, he would make it look like one vast Polo ad­vertisement.

Willy wasn’t sure how she felt about being forbidden entry to her future husband’s home office. Mitchell offered three excellent reasons for the prohibition, but the motive beneath two of the rea­sons sometimes troubled her. She did not want to be troubled by Mitchell. And all three reasons he had given her spoke to the pro­tective role he had so willingly taken on. She might move papers around, thereby creating disorder; he did not want women in there at all, because women were distractions; having lived alone all his life, he needed some corner of the house that would be his alone. Without a private lair, he feared he might grow restless, irritable, on edge. So the first and third reasons had to do with shielding Willy from the consequences of neglecting Mitchell’s need for a single­occupancy foxhole, and the second was supposed to flatter her.

He had lived alone for his entire adult life, without parents, sib­lings, ex-wives, or children. Mitchell had invited only a small number of working colleagues to their wedding, plus, of course, Roman Richard and Giles Coverley. To Willy, his life seemed bizarrely empty. Mitchell had no friends, in the conventional sense. Maybe you could not be as paranoid as Mitchell was and maintain actual friendships.

Mitchell trusted no one absolutely, and the amount of provi­sional trust he was willing to extend did not go far. This, she sus­pected, was the real reason his re-creation of a men’s club lounge was closed to her. He did not trust her not to violate whatever con­fidentialities he kept in there, and his suspicion of her underlay the way in which he had concluded their single conversation about the matter.

He had intended to answer her still-lingering surprise at the pro­hibition with an inarguable case.

“Do you print out hard copies of your writing as you go along?” he asked.

“Every day,” she said.

“Suppose you’re working on a new book, and the manuscript is on your desk. Suppose I happen to walk in and discover that you’re not there. How would you feel if I picked up the manuscript and started to read it?”

Knowing exactly what she would feel, she said nothing.

“I can see it in your face. You’d hate it.”

“I don’t know if ‘hate’ is the word I’d use.”

“We understand each other,” Mitchell said. “This topic is now closed. Giles, would you please make some tea for my bride-to-be and myself? We’ll take it on the porch.”

When the tea was steaming in the cups borne on the tray his as­sistant was carrying to the front door, Mitchell remembered that he had to field an important telephone call. He left her sitting on the porch by herself, the mistress of the wicker chair, a front yard fes­tooned with pickup trucks, and two hot cups of English breakfast she had not wanted in the first place. Alone, she picked up the Times and blazed through the crossword in twenty minutes.

From the window in her second-floor office, Willy saw Roman Richard lumbering across the driveway to speak to one of the Dell-ray men, a carpenter with a beach-ball gut, a red mullet, and intri­cate tattoos on his arms. Soon they were laughing at a remark of Roman Richard’s. Willy had a strong, unpleasant impression that the remark concerned her. The two men glanced upward at her window. When they saw her looking down, they turned their backs.

Mitchell’s voice came through her voice mail, sounding a little weary, a little dutiful.

“Hi, this is me. Sorry you aren’t picking up. Giles told me you’re home, so I was expecting to talk to you.

“Let’s see, what can I tell you? I’m in Nanterre, just west of Paris. From the way things are going, I’ll be here another three, four days. The only thing that might keep me away is a development in Toledo. Spain, unfortunately, not Ohio. So, let’s see—if you need me, I’m at the Hotel Mercure Paris La Defense Parc, and if I have to go to Toledo, I’ll be at the Hotel Domenico.

“I talked to Giles about this, but I’ll mention it to you too. The Santolini brothers were making noises about taking a couple of limbs off the oak tree at the side of the house. I don’t want them to touch that tree until I get home. Okay, Willy? They’re just making work to drive up their fee. Giles knows what to do, but I want you to back him up on this, okay? That oak is one of the reasons I bought the estate in the first place.

“And honey, listen, don’t worry about the wedding, hear me? I know it’s only two months away, but everything’s taken care of, all you have to do is shop for something pretty to wear. I set up an ap­pointment for you at Bergdorf’s the day after tomorrow. Just drive into town, meet the lady, the personal shopper, buy whatever you like. Giles will give you all the details. Let him drive you in, if you feel like it. Enjoy yourself, Willy! Give yourself a treat.”

She heard a low voice in the background. It sounded self-consciously confidential, as if the speaker regretted breaking into Mitchell’s monologue. Against her wisest instincts, Willy suffered a brief mental vision of Mitchell Faber sitting up naked in bed while a good-looking woman, also naked, whispered in his ear.

“Okay, look, I have to go. Talk to you soon, baby. Stay beautiful for me. Lots of love, bye.”

“Bye,” she said into the phone.

It was the longest message she had ever received from Mitchell, and at the sound of his voice she had experienced a peculiar range of emotions. Warmth was the first of these—Mitchell Faber aroused a flush of warmth at the center of her body. He had turned out to be a tireless, inventive lover. And with beautiful timing, the sense of safety Mitchell brought to her came obediently into play. Where there was Mitchell, MICHIGAN PRODUCE offered no threat; the mere sound of his voice banished craziness, which he would not tolerate. Also, the chaos of workmen, their tools and vehicles, no longer seemed a threat to her inner balance. Before the wedding, all this would pass; the Dellray men and the Santolini brothers would fin­ish their work and depart.

But along with these positive feelings came darker ones, and they were no less powerful. Among them was her old irritation at Mitchell’s deliberate mystifications. He had told her he was in Nanterre, but not what he was doing there, nor why he might have to go to Spain. He had left the date of his return completely open, apart from mentioning that it might occur in four or five days, which could easily mean eight or nine. And making an appointment for her at Bergdorf’s seemed unreasonably dictatorial, even for Mitchell. Willy knew he thought he was being helpful, but suppose she didn’t want to buy her wedding dress at Bergdorf’s? And all those little bullying interrogatives at the ends of his sentences, okay? That’s an annoying habit, okay?

Willy supposed that throughout her life to come, the life with Mitchell, she would feel much the way she did at this moment. As long as warmth and gratitude outweighed irritation, she would enjoy a happy enough marriage. For Willy, “happy enough” sounded para­disal. It wasn’t a phrase like “not all that rainy,” which contradicted itself; in describing a situation one could easily live with, it was a good deal more like “fairly sunny.” On the whole, did she feel fairly sunny? Yes, on the whole she did.

Also, Mitchell Faber frightened her, a little bit. Willy wanted her prospective husband never to know this, but at times, when regard­ing the smooth breadth of his back or the sheer weightiness of his hands, she experienced a little eroticized thrill of fear.


Many of the relationships Straub develops on the pages of In the Night Room contain elements of ambiguity that keep readers amused and interested. Straub reprises characters from his prior books which will appeal to fans, but will in no way deny first time readers any pleasure in enjoying In the Night Room.


Steve Hopkins, February 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2005 issue of Executive Times


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