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The Night Country: A Novel

The Night Country: A Novel

3.8 10
by Stewart O'Nan

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A ghost story that begins in everyday tragedy, from a distinctly American master of both forms: a "scary, sad, funny . . . mesmerizing read" (Stephen King)

At Midnight on Halloween in a cloistered New England suburb, a car carrying five teenagers leaves a winding road and slams into a tree, killing three of them. One escapes unharmed, another suffers


A ghost story that begins in everyday tragedy, from a distinctly American master of both forms: a "scary, sad, funny . . . mesmerizing read" (Stephen King)

At Midnight on Halloween in a cloistered New England suburb, a car carrying five teenagers leaves a winding road and slams into a tree, killing three of them. One escapes unharmed, another suffers severe brain damage. A year later, summoned by the memories of those closest to them, the three that died come back on a last chilling mission among the living.

A strange and unsettling ghost story, The Night Country creeps through the leaf-strewn streets and quiet cul-de-sacs of one bedroom community, reaching into the desperately connected yet isolated lives of three people changed forever by the accident: Tim, who survived yet lost everything; Brooks, the cop whose guilty secret has destroyed his life; and Kyle's mom, trying to love the new son the doctors returned to her. As the day wanes and darkness falls, one of them puts a terrible plan into effect, and they find themselves caught in a collision of need and desire, watched over by the knowing ghosts.

Macabre and moving, The Night Country elevates every small town's bad high school crash into myth, finding the deeper human truth beneath a shared and very American tragedy. As in his highly-prized Snow Angels and A Prayer for the Dying, once again Stewart O'Nan gives us an intimate look at people trying to hold on to hope, and the consequences when they fail.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Already noted for novels filled with darkly stunning themes and images (The Names of the Dead, A Prayer for the Dying), Stewart O'Nan enters the realm of the supernatural with a thoughtful, sorrowful, and moving tale that revels in its Halloween backdrop.

One year after the tragic car accident that claimed the lives of three teenagers, their families and friends continue to agonize over the continuing consequences. O'Nan's narrative voice is graceful, meditative, and filled with a tension that underscores elements of the truly mournful. The three ghosts act as a chorus to explore the minds of the tragedy's survivors, including the police officer who is at least partly responsible. At turns humorous, forgiving, childish, and rude, they are at the mercy of whichever hometown resident happens to be concentrating on them at any given time, so that the spirits are forced to "beam in" on various neighbors. Each of these characters tells his own story, allowing O'Nan to smoothly switch vistas and provide a vivid panorama of emotion and understanding.

The Night Country is as much about being haunted by guilt, doubt, and responsibility as it is about being plagued by ghosts. Stewart O'Nan has not only given us a masterpiece of chilling poignancy; he's also written one of the most engaging, human, and heartfelt novels of the year. Tom Piccirilli

The New York Times
So many writers and filmmakers have used suburbia as a condescending shorthand for banality and stupidity that it's a pleasure to read a novel that understands both the freedom that suburban life, with cars and hangouts providing mobility and refuge, offers to teenagers, and the way they rail against the constrictions of it. O'Nan's descriptions of this Connecticut town at night, after the strip malls and fast-food places have shut down, capture suburbia as the haunting grounds of teenagers and spooks, both of whom do their roaming after dark. — Charles Taylor
The Washington Post
The novel's power lies in its density of observation...its unsentimental sympathy and its occasional, unexpected bursts of humor...O'Nan has written a ghost story that deliberately subverts the conventions of the genre...The result, while not easy to categorize, is satisfying and complex: a seamless merger of the fantastic and realistic that addresses universal human concerns, illuminating questions of guilt, grief, loss and obsession with great—and unsparing—fidelity.—Bill Sheehan
The New Yorker
Why is the Hudson Valley haunted?” Judith Richardson asks in Possessions, a study of “the history and uses of haunting” upstate. Richardson reviews the area’s bloody rebellions and wandering ghost sailors, drawing on county archives, travelogues, letters, and the usual literary sources. She finds that the valley’s ghostly legacy derives, in part, from a fraught history of land ownership, the influence of Dutch and German folklore, and a naturally ominous landscape—as well as from entrepreneurs in the tourism industry. Richardson herself seems a little susceptible to the atmosphere that spooked Ichabod Crane. The “mountains loom and brood,” she writes, and she seeks to explain “how hauntings intersect with cultural history, public memory, economics, and land issues.”

The teen-age ghosts in Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, The Night Country, also profit from native superstition. “This is still a new England, garden-green, veined with black rivers and massacres,” one of them says. The narrators were killed in a Halloween car accident, and, a year later, skittish townspeople are easy marks for their amusement. The dead are bent on revenge, which they get, of course, in an apotheosis of middle-of-the-night adolescent car rides through dark landscapes.

In Sara Gran’s Come Closer, the haunting starts in the office of a young architect, Amanda, who ignores early signs of otherworldly intervention, such as a mysterious tapping in her apartment and the delivery of a book, “Demon Possession Past and Present.” But soon she is witnessing old murders and, alas, committing new ones. Amanda’s detached and witty narration helps us believe, as she says, that “what we think is impossible happens all the time.” -- (Lauren Porcaro)

Publishers Weekly
More poignant than terrifying, this contemporary ghost story set in suburban Connecticut focuses on the survivors of a car accident that killed three teenagers on Halloween exactly a year before the novel begins. Tim escaped without a scratch, but seeks to assuage his survivor's guilt on the first anniversary of the event. Kyle, once a teen rebel, is now a brain-damaged shadow (a kind of zombie) of his former self. Brooks, the townie cop who discovered the accident, watches helplessly as his life skids out of control. And most poignant of all, Nancy Sorensen, Kyle's mother, stoically cares for her damaged son and tries to heal a marriage nearly destroyed by grief. These sad characters are haunted in another way as well, by the ghosts of the three killed instantly in the crash: Marco, Toe and Danielle, who address themselves directly to the reader. "We're on a mission," they say, but their objective is never explicitly stated; they just observe as the day's events unfold. Each character's story is told (and, eventually, woven together) in O'Nan's simple, searching prose, which captures the inchoate passion and longing of teenage life as well as the bleak resignation of middle age. O'Nan demonstrates remarkable restraint; there's no grasping for tragic meaning (the accident was "just something random that happened to us, bad luck," according to Marco) or melodrama. Despite some confusing shifts in time-it's occasionally hard to decipher what's happening now and what happened then-a coherent thesis of misfortune emerges: death has many victims, and the ghosts haunting the survivors don't only appear on Halloween. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Narrated mostly by teenaged ghosts, this novel revisits a Halloween night car crash in a small New England town that kills three high school students and injures two others-one physically and one psychologically. Taking place around the one-year anniversary of the crash, the story focuses on Officer Brooks, the local policeman who was at the scene, and student Tim Morgan, who survived and now plots a deadly commemoration slated to include the other survivor-the brain-damaged Kyle Sorenson. The destinies of Tim and Officer Brooks become inextricably linked as they act out their private rituals of atonement: Tim for his survivor's guilt and Brooks for the terrible secret he harbors about that night, a secret that has wrecked his marriage and derailed his career. Events spiral toward the shattering and seemingly inevitable finale, which Tim has planned for the same time and place as the original accident. This is a haunting and haunted tale, one whose stark originality transforms a common small-town occurrence into something approaching the mythic. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/03.]-Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
O'Nan (Wish You Were Here, 2001, etc.), who's made a career exploring the dark side, welcomes Halloween with a "ghost story" that soars when the supernatural lets good old-fashioned character take center stage. In a small Connecticut town on October 31, a night that traditionally culminates in soaped windows, tossed eggs, and bellyaches from too much candy, a group of carousing high-schoolers are laid waste in a car accident. Three die and two live: one seemingly intact, the other severely brain-damaged. A year later, as the exact moment the careening car got wrapped around a tree approaches again, the ghosts of the dead teenagers return to haunt-and observe-the living. Narrated by the ghost of Marco, the self-proclaimed "quiet one," we meet fellow ghost Danielle (girlfriend of Tim, the one who survived intact); ghost Toe, the speeding driver (who secretly loves Danielle, even in death); and those left behind whose lives were horribly altered by the tragedy. Tim, about to graduate high school without his friends, carries the burden of still existing; Brooks, the cop with a secret who was first at the scene is "fifty-three, in debt, alone, a mess"; Kyle, a former pot-smoking rebel who now can barely tie his shoelaces; and Kyle's mother, Nancy, who tends her diminished son and mourns her empty marriage. The mildly malevolent ghosts swirl around and play tricks, but the real trauma comes when we're privy to the thoughts of the living and their attempts to cope with memory and guilt: Nancy making a memorial wreath to hang on the tree; Brooks doggedly tailing Tim in a futile attempt to keep him safe; and Tim, rethinking endlessly his horrible plan to end the pain as the witching hourapproaches. A skilled writer, a complex novel, mixed results. Agent: David Gernert/Gernert Company

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan. Copyright © 2003 by Stewart O'Nan. To be published in October, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

COME, DO YOU HEAR IT? The wind-murmuring in the eaves, scouring the bare trees. How it howls, almost musical, a harmony of old moans. The house seems to breathe, an invalid. Leave your scary movie marathon; this is better than TV. Leave the lights out. The blue glow follows you down the hall. Go to the window in the unused room, the cold seeping through the glass. The moon is risen, caught in nodding branches. The image holds you, black trunks backlit, one silver ray fallen across the deck, beckoning. It's a romance, this invitation to lunacy (lycanthropy, a dance with the vampire), elemental yet forbidden, tempting, something remembered in the blood.

Don't you ever wonder?

Don't you want to know?

Come then, come with us, out into the night. Come now, America the lovesick, America the timid, the blessed, the educated, come stalk the dark backroads and stand outside the bright houses, calm as murderers in the yard, quiet as deer. Come, you slumberers, you lumps, arise from your legion of sleep and fly over the wild woods. Come, all you dreamers, all you zombies, all you monsters. What are you doing anyway, paying the bills, washing the dishes, waiting for the doorbell? Come on, take your keys, leave the bowl of candy on the porch, put on the suffocating mask of someone else and breathe. Be someone you don't love so much, for once. Listen: like the children, we only have one night.

It'll be fun, trust me. We're not going to get caught. It's a game anyway, a masquerade. This is the suburbs; nothing happens here.

So come, friends, strangers, lovers, neighbors. Come out of your den with the big-screen TV, come out of your warm house and into the cool night. Smell the wet leaves crushed to mush on the driveway, a stale mix of dust and coriander in the wind. It's the best time of year up here, the only season you want from us, our pastoral past-witch hunts and woodsmoke, the quaintly named dead in mossy churchyards. Never mind that it's all gone, the white picket fences easy-to-clean vinyl, the friendship quilts stitched in the Dominican, this is still a new
dn0 England, garden-green, veined with black rivers and massacres.

Keep coming, past the last square of sidewalk, past the new developments and their sparse lawns, past the stripmalls with the Friendly's and the Chili's and the Gap, the CVS and the Starbucks and the Blockbuster, the KFC and the Chinese, their signs dying comets in the night, traffic signals blinking. Come back through Stagecoach Lane and Blueberry Way and Old Mill Place, solving the labyrinth of raised ranches where the last kids (too old but not wanting to grow up just yet) spill from minivans like commandos, charging across lawns for the front door, their bags rattling. The candy is serious here, full-sized Hershey bars and double Reese's Cups. No, there's no time to stop, no need. That's in the past, the happy childhood we all should have had, did have, half missed, didn't appreciate. Keep your mask on. Say something now, it would give us all away. We're past that, the grinning pumpkins left behind, the stoops and warm windows, the reaching streetlights. Out here there's nothing but muddy creeks and marshland, stone fences guarding back pasture gone wild. Here you can still get lost if you want to.

So come ride with us, driving the night in circles, the trees startled in our headlights. What, you don't recognize the road, the blind curves and crumbled cutbanks twisting so we lean into each other, intimate, even cozy, laughing as we crush the one on the end against the locked door? Remember the incense of cigarettes, the little attendant rituals. Make your fingers a scissors and bum one, it's okay, just don't pocket my lighter. The music's too loud to talk and there's no reason, we're happy trapped in ourselves and the night, this illusion of endlessness-high school, the freedom of wheels. Be seventeen again and ready for the world to love you. Feel the speed through the floor, the air lipping the windows. We're cutting corners, bowing the yellow line, floating over bumps. A deer and that would be the end of us, yet the driver only goes faster, the woods dark as space, still wilderness.

Look around now. Do you remember any of us? Your face has changed; ours are the same, frozen in yearbook photos in the local papers, nudged up against the schoolboard news, the football scores, the library booksale. One week we're history, martyred gods, then forgotten. Our names, you can't even make a guess (it's those kids that died), but you remember what happened. So you know where we're going.

Have you seen it? Not just driven by, but have you stopped and gotten out and looked at the tattered bows and ribbons, the sagging mylar balloons and greening pictures sealed in freezer bags, the plastic crosses and browning flowers, the notes written in girlish script, illegible now, pledging to remember us forever? Have you searched the trunk for scars, amazed at nature, since there's not a mark on it?

Of course not. Even if you were from around here you'd be used to it, maybe even annoyed at the cards and flowers, the shameless sentimentality of teenagers. Don't worry, they'll graduate and move away, and then our younger brothers and sisters, off to college and jobs and marriage, leaving our parents, a mother who dedicates herself to a larger cause, a father who turns inward and strange. One wraps herself in bitterness, another discovers religion. Do they change into gaudy polyester snowbirds or let the house fall down around them? Whatever. Everyone forgets--you have to, isn't that true? Isn't that proof that time is merciful, and not the opposite?

Don't answer. You'll have time to think about it later--an entire night, an eternity. Halloween comes once a year.

Can you breathe inside that thing? It's not too hot, is it?

But look, we're almost there, where the curve bears down on the crossroads. There's no other car, no bad luck, just the tree, the slick of wet leaves on the road, the romance of speed. It's the time of year that kills us, a lack of friction combined with a sideways vector, loose and centrifugal. The police will reconstruct it, pacing off the distances with a limp measuring tape (there's my lighter by the red X), taking statements from the people on-scene, photocopying the long report for the courts and insurance companies. Someone you love has read it or not read it, the contents life-changing and unimportant, checks deposited, money spent.

From the backseat you can't see the tree, or only at the last minute, if you happen to be backseat driving, chickenshit ("Slow down"). There's a second in which we realize we're not going to make the curve--all of us, even the most hopeful. The sound of the road, so constant, disappears, vacuumed into black silence. Light comes back from the trunk, as if the tree has flashed its brights, warning us off at the last second. It is a game of chicken.

"Oh shit," Danielle says; you feel it because she's on your lap, your arms wrapped around her ribs, her perfumed thinness.

"Toe, you fuck"--Kyle, right beside you. (Who? Toe, Kyle, Danielle. See, you've already forgotten. What's my name? What's yours?)

It's a trick (not a treat), but the tree seems to leap out, seems to drive right at us, wide as a semi. Scream if you want to. After the first few times you'll realize it's useless. You'll remember us, and remember to say good-bye. You'll grow as sentimental as our friends and make this night and this drive stand for our lives, the five of us inseparable. So keep your eyes open. Don't cover your face as we leave the road and shoot through the high weeds (sifted by the grille like wheat meeting a thresher). Remember what happens, how it sounds and smells and tastes. Enjoy the ride.

Didn't I tell you? There's a reason we call on you, why this night comes again and again, bad dream within a dream. You think it's torture but you know it's justice. You know the reason. You're the lucky one, remember? You live.

Chapter Two


BROOKS'S WATCH GOES OFF IN THE DARK CAR, military, the way he's set it since basic, another inelastic habit, and tomorrow starts at zero, a clean slate. There is no midnight, just a digital tick at 23:59:59 that crosses off yesterday, says he's got seven more hours before he can go home to no one (just us, sitting in his kitchen, flitting through the woods). The dogs bark, even with the kitchen light on (and you know we love to tease them), but where they're at it's not a problem. All the way to the front door he'll hear them warning him to leave, just get back in the truck and drive, and don't think he hasn't thought about it. If it wasn't for Gram, Brooks thinks he would--leave it all to the realtor--but that might be a lie. He's lived here his entire life, a real townie; he wouldn't know where to go. (He's going nowhere. We've seen him hang up his gun in slow motion, deliberate as a horror flick, and only Toe's twisted enough to make the holster swing, a cheesy temptation. Don't think about us too much, Brooksie.)

His watch goes off, cheap Korean double-beep, and wherever he is around town--cruising the shadowed docks of the Stop'n'Shop, cherrypicking in Battiston's parking lot for fathers trying to get their videos back on time--he can see the fastest route to the tree, like a diagram, the map on the wall at dispatch lit up, Old Farms branching off Country Club, taking him there too late, always too late.

So no one has to tell Brooks it's the anniversary. There's one every night-bee-beep-and he's been dreading it since mid-September, watching the leaves drop, the wind dragging them scratching over the roads, massing drifts in the lee of his truck, maple seed whirlybirds lining the wipers. Weekends he skips his wake-up shower and rakes himself into a dizzy sweat. He knows he can't stop the fall, the painfully clear days, the frost on the grass; it's just the rotation of the earth, its senseless spin around the sun-out of control, no brakes. He's lucky there were no tasteless jokes at the station, no cardboard skeletons squirted with runny vampire blood and shoved in his locker (maybe there are, maybe right now Ravitch is scheming at his console, deciding how far he can go with him; it's a night for phony phone calls).

Tonight it's Battiston's, old faithful, running radar, his cruiser tucked behind the landscaped hump, the darkened cleaners at his back with its still carousel of plastic hanging bags-stiff tuxedos and Cinderella gowns for the fall formal. Last Friday's movies are due. Brooks waits in the dark, the tiny red light shuttling over the face of the scanner, searching for voices. He put too much sugar in his coffee and it's making him twitch. He wants something routine, something dumb, just something to chew on, like the plastic stirrer he realizes he's chomping flat, another bad habit. He stops and folds it into the ashtray among the gum wrappers. He hates midnights; days there are errands to run, favors to do for the chief. He never thought he'd miss them.

Across 44, a silver Mercedes SUV slips into Webster Bank's drive-thru. Brooks files away the state plates. The rest of the plaza's bare, nothing but parking spots-white lines and oil stains, the high lights burning without purpose.

Today's the day, tonight's the night. What does it mean, if anything? Every season has its tragedies, and how can you take back something that's done? It's the argument he used to have with Melissa. Now that she's gone he takes both sides and fights by himself. (We don't have to do anything, just sit and listen in; Danielle says it's cruel, and that starts a different argument.)

He wants a call to stop him from thinking and checks the green screen, the cursor tinting his hands like Frankenstein. He has reason to be hopeful; it's still Cabbage Night, home of soaped windows and pegged eggs and toilet paper orchards, the free delivery of sizzling dog doo, and that staple of Avon, mailbox baseball. Just the aftermath, that's all he wants, one of our fathers pissed-off in his slippers, asking what Brooks is going to do about it--some unhappy taxpayer used to pushing his secretary's buttons. "First I need to take your information," he'll say, letting whatever kids did it get away clean, no muss no fuss, all the while the cherry strobing over the housefront, telling the neighbors everything's under control. "And you said you didn't see a car, just heard the mailbox and that was it?"

This is your big hero. Because there has to be a hero, right, someone to root for? Sorry, he's all we've got, him and Tim, and Tim can't be the hero, can he? (Toe thinks what Tim is going to do is heroic, or at least supercool, but Toe, of course, is a psycho. Danielle thinks it's stupid, that's all she'll say; she's still mad at him. Me--hi, I'm Marco--I'm in the middle. I'm the quiet one. You'll see, nobody listens to me.) I don't even know if we're going to try to do Kyle, he's so messed up. You'll see, he's a good guy, Brooksie, a little whacked after everything but who isn't. It's not a perfect world. It's not a perfect story, just something random that happened to us, bad luck. Of course you can't tell that to Brooks. He's the kind of guy who needs reasons for everything, who needs everything to make sense.

A call, a false alarm, a fire, a barking dog, a heart attack, backup on a car stop, a domestic, a prank, a prowler, but there's nothing coming in, no one screaming down 44 for the Blockbuster. He runs the Mercedes' plates for the hell of it, using two fingers. Enter, send. The screen goes black, the faded light trapped in his eyeballs, then flashes on again.

Registered to a local: Ronald Seung, 25 Candlewood Terrace--no wants or warrants. What did he expect?

He knows he has to relax. Midnights you have to just let time go by. Five minutes into the longest day of his life (by a mile; this one he's taking to the grave), Brooks is clockwatching. He thinks of closing his eyes right there and cooping-ten minutes, that's all he wants. He had to wake up early and clear out of the house so Charity the realtor could show it empty, and now that missing sleep is catching up with him. He's never going to sell the place with the roof looking like that, but he doesn't have the money to fix it; he's going to take a hit on it one way or the other. He dreams of Florida and fishing for tarpon, walking the dogs on a white beach, throwing bony driftwood sticks for them to fight over, but it's just a dream, a cheesy ending to a movie. He's got six years till he can take retirement--seven, really--and Ginger's already ten, Skip's eight; they won't make it.

Meet the Author

Stewart O’Nan's novels include Last Night at the Lobster, The Night Country, and Prayer for the Dying. His novel Snow Angels was the basis of the 2007 film of the same name. He is also the author of the nonfiction books The Circus Fire and, with Stephen King, the bestselling Faithful. Granta named him one of the Twenty Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Pittsburgh.

Brief Biography

Avon, CT
Date of Birth:
February 4, 1961
Place of Birth:
Pittsburgh, PA
B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992

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The Night Country 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
loveleighgirl More than 1 year ago
I was expecting a lot more from this book. The reviews were very good which is why I bought it. I was completely confused by who the narrators were and what in the world the plot was! It took me a long while to figure out everyone's names, since most of the characters were ghosts and the narrator (also a ghost) addressed each of them without using their names most of the time. I also didn't like any of the characters at all, so I didn't care what happened to anyone. Boring and complicated. Borrow it from the library. Don't buy it.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book will stay with me for a long time. Much like 'The Lovely Bones' this is told from the 'dead kid's' perspective and shows how a tragic event impacted the lives of others. The similarities end there--this is a moving and powerful story of survivor's guilt, told with profound insight and some humor. It's not a ghost story, nor is it a mystery, but it's haunting and it will keep you guessing throughout.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Versatile voice performer John Tye brings a moving reading to this spectral tale of an American tragedy. It is, in actuality, a ghost story. It was a Halloween night in a small Connecticut town when a car carrying five teenagers went heads on with a tree. The result? Three were killed, one survived with irreversible brain damage, and another escapes without injury. The crux of the story is the aftermath. Tim, the uninjured survivor, attempts to atone for his good luck one year later, the anniversary of the collision. Kyle, the brain damaged victim, far from the rambunctious teenager he once was, has shattered not only his own life but his mother's as well. The policeman, Officer Brooks, who was the first to come upon the accident, is fearful of what may happen on the first anniversary of the tragedy. And, rightly so, as the three who lost their lives return to confront the living. Mr. O'Nan has crafted a tale which might well tell the story of every small town's greatest fear - only he delivers it with an eerie, rather supernatural twist.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a grim story well told. Particularly if you, like most of us, recall your high school days and the car accident which killed several of your friends. Is there a high school without such an event? Onan brings back the ghosts of the three 'crash kids' on the one-year anniversary of 'that night', which was Halloween. They are conjured up anytime friends or family think of them. You will recall similar nights in high school when you were a passenger in a car full of teenagers out for a night of cruising too fast. It is a wonder that any of us survive. You will think about the characters long after the reading...always the mark of a good writer.