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The Last Picture Show

Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

From time to time, whether as parents, friends or sleepers trapped in nightmares of our own, we are called upon to use our imaginations to soothe the random terrors that invade our minds in the dark. Often, a simple twist of an eyebrow or smile on the lip will transform a witch into a leprechaun or a free fall into a flight.

Steven Millhauser’s “The Sisterhood of the Night” appeared as a nightmarish short story in Harper’s magazine before it was collected with 11 other gems in “The Knife Thrower and Other Stories” (1998). With the breathless impartiality of the minutes of a small-town chamber of commerce, “The Sisterhood” reported the rumors surrounding the nighttime activities of a band of adolescent girls. “It is said that the girls remove their shirts and dance wild dances under the summer moon. It is said that the girls paint their breasts with snakes and strange symbols.” Even worse, the suicide of the 14-year-old Lavinia Hall is laid on the doorstep of the Sisterhood. The truth, however, may be more disquieting--that the girls meet in the darkness simply to do nothing, to withdraw into an impenetrable silence. “What shall we do with our daughters?” the narrator wonders in trepidation. “In the night we wake uneasily and tiptoe to their doors, pausing with our hands outstretched, unable to advance or retreat. We think of the long years of childhood, the party frocks and lollipops, the shimmer of trembling bubbles in blue summer air. We dream of better times.”

Those better times are here. In Millhauser’s latest novella, “Enchanted Night,” the Jaycee anxiety of the earlier story has been replaced by an acceptance of magic that a nearly full moon can cast on adolescents and adults alike. In a Grover’s Corners of a southern Connecticut town, the Sisterhood joins the lovers and the loners, who wake in the blue summer air underneath a summer moon, to wander along the deserted streets and the schoolyards, climb hills and bed down on spruce needles and lawn.

There is 14-year-old Laura Engstrom, who wakes at midnight to find her bones itching and her body screaming at her to pull on jeans, T-shirt and denim jacket (with half a roll of Lifesavers in one pocket) and walk outside alone in the moonlight. There is Jane Manning, 20, who slips out of her house for an assignation with a dream lover on the backyard swing. There is the woman who lives alone. There is Danny, who abandons his hoodlum friends to lie down in his backyard with only a single desire, “to reach out and embrace the moon, to press it against his chest.” And around the corner, there is the eccentric 39-year-old Haverstraw, trapped in an airless attic room, at work for the last nine years “on an immense project, an experiment in memory, which will justify him,” who escapes the factory of his mind for a rendezvous with Mrs. Kasco, the mother of a high-school buddy, to drink wine and chat out his cynicism on the town’s single hill.

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And there is the Sisterhood. But it is no longer the erotic coven of Salemettes of Millhauser’s earlier story. Stripped of rumor and irrational fear, the Sisterhood is simply a group of teenage girls in Zorro masks who slip into darkened living rooms for a moment’s quiet contemplation and then depart as quietly as they enter, leaving only a single note--"We are your daughters.” And there are the real dolls, plastic and wooden, the Pierrots and the Columbines, who awake, like the marionettes of a Hans Christian Andersen story, to dance like adolescents in their own moonlight.

Which is not to say that “Enchanted Night” is as full of cocoa and mush as, say, the 50-year-old children’s classic “Goodnight Moon.” There is some menace, to be sure, in the form of a wandering loner, the man with the shiny black hair who trails young Laura in her skin-tight jeans on her moonlight pilgrimage. And there is the music only the younger children of the town can hear, the music of a piper that urges them to “push the covers back, swing their legs quickly over the bedside.”

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Millhauser, whose “Martin Dressler” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, has always displayed his writing in those forgotten historical mezzanines on the unreachable floors between reality and fantasy. His vitrines have always been hidden in rooms down secret halls, covered with a dust of another era, smelling faintly of mothballs and foreboding.

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Yet “Enchanted Night” turns spider webs into fairy dust and alchemizes naphthalene into nepenthe. Millhauser screens a “Last Picture Show” for us, in which magic has rocked away angst as naturally as the tides. In the sweetest vignette of the book, green-eyed Cooper, all the better for eight or nine beers, wanders past his favorite shop window and plants a kiss on the plate glass for his love--an impossibly impassive mannequin. On this night, however, the enchantment of the moon penetrates even the glass. Walking out of the display case, she picks a dandelion and impulsively slips it behind the ear of her admirer. Quite wonderfully, it is she, as much as the slack-jawed Cooper, who is amazed by the magical transformation. “She has never touched skin before, soft and silky over bone: her own hands and cheeks remain glass-hard. She takes his hand and they begin to walk slowly along the shadowy side of the alley. She can smell the leather of his jacket among the dark green scents of the embankment. When they step from shadow into moonlight she seems to feel, in her slender shoulders, the soft, silken weight of the moonlight sifting down.”

Writing in tableaux as concise as magic spells--as short as a paragraph or two or merely long enough to record the song of the field insects--Millhauser is at his poetic best. “Enchanted Night” is as much dramatic lyric as novella, as fit to be read aloud, in a theater or in a bed, as “The Pied Piper” or “Under Milk Wood.” The sub-lunar lunacy that is the natural state of all fairy tales is Millhauser’s passport to pipe all of us children past the nightmares of adolescence, of love, of loneliness, to play us gentle into that good, enchanted night.


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