Book Review: Shoot the Moonlight Out by William Boyle
Shoot the Moonlight Out by William Boyle is a haunting crime story about the broken characters inhabiting yesterday’s Brooklyn and a riveting portrait of lives crashing together at the turn of the century.
With his new novel, Shoot the Moonlight Out, named after a song by Garland Jeffreys, William Boyle continues his explorations into the lives of working-class people—some involved in crime, some not—in the borough of Brooklyn. The story begins in Southern Brooklyn in July 1996 and then jumps ahead five years to when most of the action takes place. Unmentioned throughout but present in the reader’s mind is the awareness that the summer of 2001 is the last period anyone will have before the September 11th attacks to dream certain dreams of the life they want to live. Life will go on, but one has to assume that soon all the characters’ expectations of what life has to give will change. They will have to adapt to new circumstances, but then again, these are people to whom the quality of adaptation is what you might call an essential ingredient.
As he has shown in his earlier books, Boyle excels at portraying people who never give up no matter how bad a hand they’ve been dealt or what kind of mess they’ve created for themselves. And his empathy extends to nearly every person he puts on the page, helping him create a gallery of characters—many of them damaged—that the reader loves to spend time with.
If a stone is dropped in a lake, that stone creates a ripple effect. An initial disturbance to a system spreads outward to disturb an ever-larger part of that system. Such is the structure William Boyle employs in this novel, and it is indeed an actual rock—thrown by a boy named Bobby Santovasco—that sets in motion the events to come. Bobby and his friend Zeke, bored during the summer between seventh and eighth grade, like to throw stones at cars getting off a local parkway. It seems like harmless fun until a rock one of them throws hits a young woman driver in the head, causing a fatal crash. The two flee the scene, initially unsure who threw the rock that did the damage until later realizing it was Bobby. In the almost entirely closed system that is their southern Brooklyn neighborhood, this fateful act will ripple out and affect a web of people interconnected in ways they don’t at first perceive but will come to comprehend.
Family plays a big role for these characters, whether in the closeness of ties or lack thereof. Jack Cornacchia, the father of the woman killed by the thrown rock, has not only lost his one child but also his wife from cancer. Lily Murphy, at one time the stepsister of Bobby Santovasco, wonders how a life could go from full and satisfying to so barren. Lily, like Jack’s late daughter, is an aspiring writer, and she meets Jack at the writing class she teaches in a church basement. Jack has written a piece about his grief and loss, and Lily considers how alone he is:
Not just Amelia gone but his wife and parents too. She’s always been a lonely person, but she’s never been that alone. She still has her mom. She still has friends she feels a deep connection to. Not many, but a few. She thinks about how close so many folks are to being that alone, though. Lose a few people and, suddenly, there’s no one left.
Just back from college and unsure what she wants to do with her life besides writing, Lily finds herself interested (not romantically, mind you) in a neighborhood guy she never knew before. She reflects on the mysterious patterns life sometimes creates, and in fact, these patterns are something Boyle weaves into his book beautifully.
It takes time for the reader to see it, but one does grasp that the novel’s plot is very much built around doubling. Two boys are involved in the stone incident, and not one but two young women are aspiring writers. Two women also, Lily and teenage Francesca, have lost their fathers. That Jack comes alive and finds a modicum of happiness when Lily enters his life is no more surprising than that Lily takes to Jack as a kind of surrogate father or that Francesca, in desperate trouble after a terrible incident, winds up finding refuge with Jack. There is a classical shapeliness to the book’s form, a way Boyle has of moving people around so they meet who they need to meet and understand what they need to understand, but none of the characters’ peregrinations strikes the reader as contrived because his people are so nuanced and real. Add to that the precision he brings to his evocation of Southern Brooklyn and the parts of Manhattan his characters visit, and you have a novel that rings true down to the tiniest detail.
I’m a New Yorker myself, and when I read the following passage about Francesca leaving Brooklyn to go into “the city” (aka Manhattan) by subway, I could not but smile with recognition. This is New York City of 2001 to a tee, and this, without question, is an accurate depiction of the excitement one can get at a youthful age merely by traveling from one borough to another:
Passing over the East River on the Manhattan Bridge is her favorite part of the ride. It always makes her feel like a kid. She figures only a kid gets excited about going over a bridge on a train, about studying the way the sunlight hits the water. She’d like to use that in a movie someday, a lonely woman watching the river out the scratched-up window of a train.
In the city, she gets off at Broadway-Lafayette. She’s thinking about the movies at first. It’s always such a relief to come into the city to see a movie. All the theaters in her neighborhood are closed or on their way out, and they were shitholes for a long time before that. Last time she was at the Marlboro on Bay Parkway, one of the only theaters still standing in Southern Brooklyn, a rat scurried under her feet in the middle of whatever she was seeing. She loves coming to the Angelika and Film Forum, where it feels like movies still matter…”
William Boyle knows how to craft a tight quilt of a plot while at the same time grounding that plot in a setting of wonderful richness. His Brooklyn is specific and clear and alive, a place he knows cold. He’s able to capture the messiness of life with the acuity of a dedicated realist, but he shapes that messiness in such a way that he keeps everything moving forward and toward a definitive resolution. Controlled and yet loose is how I would describe Shoot the Moonlight Out, and for my money, that’s a blend of two traits that’s no small achievement.