The Washington Post review of Late Nights on Air

Apr 26, 2011 | LNOA-Review, Review

In the good old days, before we had to worry about the Internet killing off everything, we used to worry about the survival of radio. First television drove the industry into the music corner, and then corporate consolidation, rightwing cranks and shock jocks homogenized the dial to death. Let a thousand podcasts bloom, but they can’t replace the special intimacy we used to feel late at night in the car or at home—lonely or missing someone—listening to the silky voice of a sympathetic deejay holed up in a studio, talking into the dark.

Elizabeth Hay misses that voice, too. In fact, in the 1970s and ’80s she was that voice. For 10 years she worked as a radio broadcaster for the CBC in the Northwest Territories, an experience that informs her discerning new novel, Late Nights on Air. Set in the bleak town of Yellowknife, about 250 miles from the Arctic Circle, her story meanders through several years in the lives of a collection of misfits at a public radio station. Though weighty themes rumble beneath the tundra of this plot, Late Nights is an understated, easy-to-overlook book. Fortunately, it won Canada’s Giller Prize, and that prestigious recognition—wholly deserved—may bring it to the attention of readers who will respond to its subtle wit and wistful spirit.

Hay’s affable hero, Harry Boyd, is a deejay “with a nearly forgotten reputation for brilliance.” He peaked early, went on to host a television talk show that bombed, and lost everything: career, wife, dignity. An old friend “pulled a few strings to get him a night shift in the Northern Service, the very place where he’d started out fifteen years ago. . . . Now he was an old fish in a small pond.” It’s 1975, and the sudden departure of the station’s manager (ran off with a waitress) has raised Harry to the position of temporary boss, but late at night when he can play and say whatever he likes on the air, he still wonders how he ended up back here “in the little rabbit warren of rooms known at CFYK.”

This is essentially a love story, but of muted, smothered love, passion that blossoms not at first sight but at first hear. The novel opens when Harry catches the “slow, clear, almost unnatural confidence, the low-pitched sexiness, the elusive accent” of Dido Paris reading the news. She’s a gorgeous young woman from the Netherlands—”Who didn’t fall in love with her that summer?” Hay asks. Besides her striking appearance, “she was zealous in her compliments and capable of the most reckless intimacy.” Dido learned English by listening to recordings of Noël Coward, which only partially explains her intriguing accent. (Late Nights lavishes attention on the tone, cadence and tenor of characters’ voices; we can hear these people even better than we can see them.) Now, running from a bad marriage and an untenable relationship with her father-in-law, Dido begins a flirtatious relationship with Harry that he knows can’t lead to anything more, even as he hopes it will.

Along with this smoldering love affair, Hay outfits the little Yellowknife station with a quirky cast of employees whom we gradually get to know and care deeply about. The receptionist, Eleanor Dew, is the gracious gatekeeper of the office, an ageless woman whose Christian faith is sorely tested by loneliness. Gwen Symon—”an odd mixture of crippling modesty and immodest determination”—drives more than 3,000 miles to present herself at the station and ask for work, having been told that “anyone as inexperienced in radio as she was should try the hinterlands first.” Eddy Fitzgerald is a brooding, redheaded technician with an aura of revolutionary violence.

We meet a few regulars around town, too, especially Mrs. Dargabble, who makes a “lofty, loquacious, regular plea for classical music,” and 60-year-old Ralph Cody, the station’s book reviewer, whose “appetite for talk was barely whetted by the ten minutes allowed him on the air.”

The plot of this novel is a faint signal, a series of short moments, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, often flecked with intimations of tragedy. Hay’s writing is so alluring and her lost souls so endearing that you’ll lean in to catch the story’s delicate developments as these characters shuffle along through quiet desperation and yearning. You’ll also begin to hear how Hay is deepening the range of this book. Behind the office conflicts and fumbling couplings of the gang at CFYK, a major national debate plays out: A well-respected judge is roving around the country patiently conducting public hearings about a proposed natural gas pipeline that threatens to disrupt the lives of the native people and scar the Arctic “like a razor slashing the face of the Mona Lisa.”

This interesting environmental backstory reflects the anxiety Harry and his colleagues feel about their own future—torn between dread and impatience. They’re all drawn to the haunting true tale of John Hornby, an English explorer who lost his life in 1927 trying to live off the land deep in the North. The final third of the novel describes Harry, Gwen, Eleanor and Ralph on a fateful six-week canoe trip that follows the path of Hornby’s last journey. The trip, over several hundred miles through lakes and forest, provides an even more striking showcase for Hay’s talent, her psychological acuity and her command of striking natural settings.

There’s real sadness here, but real tenderness, too. Hay listens to these people—their surprising comedy and their fragile needs—with enough sensitivity to catch, as she puts it, “a single word balanced atop a mountain of feeling.”

Originally published in The Washington Post on April 13, 2008.