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Sparrow Nights

Sparrow Nights

by David Gilmour

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An exhilarating novel of erotic and psychotic extremes from one of Canada’s best fiction writers.

Everyone would agree that Darius Halloway was the most civilized of men, a professor of French literature, a connoisseur of ideas and women and wine, a perfect guest at life’s dinner party. Darius himself would have agreed, until Emma, waifish and


An exhilarating novel of erotic and psychotic extremes from one of Canada’s best fiction writers.

Everyone would agree that Darius Halloway was the most civilized of men, a professor of French literature, a connoisseur of ideas and women and wine, a perfect guest at life’s dinner party. Darius himself would have agreed, until Emma, waifish and insatiable,walks out the door, leaving her empty clothes hangers rattling in his closet.

For a little while, it’s not so bad. He thinks she must come back, and other women find his melancholy quite compelling. But then the sparrows of insomnia start picking at the inside of his skull. Life’s little aggravating moments seem to require him to seek direct retaliation. Soon all his smoothness and cleverness is directed toward wreaking the most elaborate revenge… and getting away with it. Until the ultimate retaliation arises, and there he is, in the most damning of situations, with his nerves on fire and his heart in his throat…finally not thinking of Emma.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The "whack, whack, whack" of the flapping flag on his neighbor's property keeps middle-aged college academic Darius Halloway awake at night. So he sneaks out in darkness and cuts the flag's rope. When another neighbor's dogs disturb his concentration, Darius poisons them, and when, at a resort hotel, he's bothered by the noise of a neighbor's air conditioner, he climbs a ladder and stuffs a glue-soaked sock into the machine's works. Self-absorbed, prone to paranoia and obsession, enamored of young women and fine wine, Darius is the brilliantly constructed protagonist and coolly lucid narrator of this new, excellent novel from Canadian writer Gilmour (Lost Between Houses). Darius's extreme responses to life condense into his erotic longing for Emma Carpenter, a young, equally impulsive graduate student whom he carries on with for a few years before she dumps him. The ditching spins Darius into a wallow of self-pity, which he alleviates momentarily via a visit to a massage parlor, where he meets a black woman named Passion, whom he invites to his house. When Passion takes him up on the offer, she robs him; when he later confronts her, he's beaten by her pimp. The next day, the pimp comes calling and Darius shoots him dead, then hacks up the body and burns it in his furnace all this perfectly justifiable to this unbearably pretentious professor of French lit, who, moments after disposing of the body, savors hearing "the opening, almost inquisitive notes of the Concierto de Aranjuez." Like Jerzy Kosinski, Gilmour is able to carry readers deep into the mind of a self-rationalizing madman; it's an exhilarating journey, expertly observed and quite disturbing. (May 1) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This is the story of one man's descent into obsession. Darius Halloway, a respected professor of French literature, falls in love with an eccentric young woman named Emma Carpenter. Together they explore the limits of passion and desire, but when she breaks off the affair, his life spins out of control. He finds himself conceiving and carrying out a series of revenge fantasies against neighbors and casual acquaintances, culminating in an encounter with a masseuse and her criminal-minded boyfriend that nearly ends in his death. In the macabre conclusion, the book offers a glimpse of redemption for its hero. Gilmour is a Toronto-based writer whose previous novel, Lost Between Houses, was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award. His latest is sure to solidify his reputation as an edgy, intelligent author. This work offers a great deal of mordant wit, and the writing is consistently first-rate, layering memory, inner monolog, and fast-paced action. Recommended for all collections. Philip Santo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A strange and lugubrious fifth novel by the Canadian Gilmour (How Boys See Girls, 1991, etc.), who offers an excruciating insight into the tormented psyche of a lonely older man. Darius Halloway is a professor of French literature in Toronto. Even by the standards of his profession, he is a dull fellow: pedantic, self-obsessed, and astonishingly sheltered from the realities of life in the world. Originally a student of English, Halloway switched to French while still an undergraduate in order to spend a year in Toulouse and escape from the memory of his first bad love affair. There were plenty more to come. Perhaps the cruelest blow came from Emma Carpenter, a much younger women who took up with Halloway for some reason and moved into his apartment. Foul-mouthed and promiscuous, Emma spoke quite intimately and casually of her former lovers and refused to marry Halloway. Finally, she packed up and left, to no one's surprise but his, and he found himself more and more distraught as each day passed without her. He tried all the usual distractions to forget his misery-but to no avail. He seduced perfect strangers, but they inevitably made him feel worse. He drank a great deal. He poisoned his neighbors' dogs. He traveled to the Caribbean. Soon, he found himself visiting sleazy massage parlors in dodgy parts of town. He became particularly attached to one masseuse named Passion, who eventually came to see him at home and burgled his house. When he threatened to report her to the police, her pimp beat him up. When the pimp came to pay him a second call, Halloway shot him to death and burned his corpse in the furnace. Then he fell in love with someone else, married her, and . . . . Pointless,aimless, joyless, fruitless, and flavorless.
From the Publisher
“With Sparrow Nights, David Gilmour joins the list of inspired modern monologists that begins with Dostoevsky and includes Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard and Céline.... [Gilmour] is a brilliant stylist capable of an extraordinary range of effects.” — Boston Review

“[B]racing and original.” — The Standard (St. Catharine’s)

“[A]s engaging as anything he’s written…. Gilmour is not one to shrink from the sordid aspects of sex and death, and that he can spin such a tale with wit and economy of phrase is a tribute to his storytelling skill.” — Winnipeg Free Press

“[A] testament to Gilmour’s writing and narrative pacing that he keeps us at the just right distance, repelled yet fascinated.” — The Hamilton Spectator

“Elegantly written…. [Gilmour] writes with a smart, unpretentious appreciation of women…. He succeeds with wit, thoughtfulness and aplomb.” — The Vancouver Sun

“In his latest novel, Sparrow Nights, David Gilmour has created a classic or textbook anti-hero…. And, as always, Gilmour writes in a clear, concise, lapidary prose. In a literary landscape littered with victims, interlarded with heroes, it is refreshing, for once, to spend time with a character as unrepentant as he is unpleasant; a real bad egg.” — David Eddie, National Post

“Gilmour … is a clever craftsman. Carefully written and loaded with irony, Sparrow Nights succeeds…. Ultimately what makes this novel work is what makes it disturbing — it's that there could be a little Professor Halloway in us all.” — The Gazette (Montreal)

“What miracles good writing can achieve…. Sparrow Nights proves it belongs to the best forms of literature.” — The Globe and Mail

“…witty and darkly comical…” — Books In Canada

“Gilmour is a fine writer with a sardonic sense of humour…” — Booklist

“Like Jerzy Kosinski, Gilour is able to carry readers deep into the mind of a self-rationalizing madman; it’s an exhilarating journey, expertly observed and quite disturbing.” — Publishers Weekly

“[Gilmour’s] latest is sure to solidify his reputation as an edgy, intelligent author. This work offers a great deal of mordant wit, and the writing is consistently first-rate, layering memory, inner monolog, and fast-paced action. Recommended for all collections.” — Library Journal

“Gilmour's prose has flashes of bright metaphor, and his dialogue is alert and alive. Darius is a believable aesthete — he's consumed with status, the impression he's making and the gnawing power of the past.” — New York Times Review

“Canadian novelist David Gilmour’s mordantly hilarious and dazzlingly written new novel, Sparrow Nights, falls solidly in this tradition, but it does not simply ring the changes. Even as Gilmour provides some of the familiar satisfactions — a caustically articulate narrator à la Humbert Humbert and an increasingly bleak and dangerous series of humiliating misadventures — he also manages to put a new twist or two into it…. In spite of everything, the reader is likely to be as captivated by the sound of Halloway’s voice as Halloway himself is. Halloway may be a major-league jackass, not to mention a vandal and worse, but he’s a hugely entertaining one. As Humbert Humbert used to say, you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” — The Washington Post

Product Details

Random House of Canada, Limited
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Let me come back, just for a second, to Emma Carpenter. She had been introduced by the chairman at a cocktail party and I thought, there’s something wrong with her. She smells funny. Indeed she did, a kind of acrid odour, like a frightened animal, and it seemed very odd to me that such a sophisticated young woman would turn up at a gathering of professionals, smelling.

Later, when she was gone, I made a casual observation to a colleague, a Frenchman, who claimed not to have noticed anything at all. But then again, Serrault is always claiming not to understand the obvious. I think he fancies it makes him seem more complicated than the rest of us. And it does, of course.

I knew very little about her actually, and I tried to keep it that way. For all the modesty of my professional accomplishments, my failings at marriage, my childless life, the faded-away friendships, in spite of all these things, I was quite a happy man and I didn’t need a mess. I observed, however, that she wore black, rather cheap running shoes to class; that she had waited two years before applying to graduate school. I have no idea what she did in the meantime; probably a great deal of sex; there was something of that in her, a kind of propriety which, one suspected, protects a pornographic imagination. I don’t know. Perhaps in saying that, I am revealing more about myself than her.

I can tell you something else about Emma, since you’ve got me gossiping. As a favour to Serrault, to whom she had been assigned, I read a number of her undergraduate papers. They were perfectly satisfactory, but she was brighter in person than on paper. Something froze in her when she “wrote,” a ball of ice that appeared to melt almost entirely in conversation, where she could be shockingly direct. More about that later. She also had a surprising talent for mimesis. One day, in an unguarded moment, I overheard her referring to a conversation that had taken place the day before in the faculty lounge. A professor of linguistics had been going on and on, the way they do, and in recapping his remarks she had allowed herself a small imitation of his voice, which was like a door that needs oil. She delivered his nasal creak with such aplomb, to such a degree of perfection, that for a second the man in question seemed to materialize in front of us. What an effect it had! It was as if she had suddenly broken into fluent Arabic. It implied, this little party trick of hers, the presence of alien creatures within her slender frame, a notion that I found alarmingly erotic. But I didn’t pursue her. By fifty-one I had learned the hard way that slim attractive young women . . . Well, why go into it. You know perfectly well what I’m saying. Besides, I had other problems.

For example, one fall day I was sitting in my study. It was a beautiful day and I’d left the back door open. You could smell autumn in the garden, the scent of the leaves, the cool air so sweet, so beyond-this-world. It was as if in the fragrance alone I could possess again the finest, most elusive sensations of my childhood, the clarity of things felt and seen and smelt and heard–a bird singing in the yard, a schoolboy’s mechanical recitation: porto, portas, portat.

A yellow cat wandered in, purring and drooling and rubbing against my leg. I was writing a course description for the next year’s calendar when I heard a strange sound, an irregular pop like a cap pistol. Pop, pop. Then silence. Then pop. But no, it wasn’t a child’s toy, it was something else. For some reason it amused me to guess what it was, and I stopped working and listened carefully. It didn’t sound metallic, it sounded rather like . . . I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I’d heard it before. But somewhere else, in an entirely different framing. It belonged back there with the vivid garden smells. But what could it be?

Finally, I went to see. Opposite my back patio, across a narrow lawn and a screen of rose bushes, stood a ragged flagpole on the next property. For some reason the tenant had raised a German flag. I’m not partial to Germans (although I rather like the sound of a woman speaking the language softly), but that’s not the issue. The issue was the flag flapping. It snapped, it cracked in the wind. Abruptly I recalled where I’d heard it: at summer camp. Late in the afternoons, limp from the sun and swimming, I used to lie on the dock, the drops of water falling from my brown skin. They made stains on the sun-bleached wood like little countries on a map. Closing my eyes, I would listen to the sound of the waves lapping under the dock, the sound of a motorboat across the bay–and a flag flapping overhead. But I didn’t remember it being so loud. This was like a starter’s pistol. Crack, crack, crack.

I went back to my study and resumed work, but once you notice something like that, after a while it’s all you notice. Gradually my typing disintegrated, a sure sign I don’t like what I’m writing, that my body is fighting it. Really, what a racket! Finally I surrendered and went for a closer look. I walked around the block and stood in front of the offending property. The sunshine was dazzling. I stared at the front parlour hoping by the intensity of my feelings to bring its owner to the window, as one can sometimes awake a sleeper by resting one’s eyes on him for a protracted length of time. A stocky woman passed me on the sidewalk, a dog trotting at her side. Possibly a poor selection, but I looked to her as an ally. She nodded politely, deferring to my age I assume, but the reason I smiled at her didn’t register, distracted as she was by the log-dumping hound that bounced empty-headedly beside her. My stomach began to ache; acid dripped like the inside of a sweating cave. This was intolerable. Too many provocations. But what could I do? How do you tell someone to take down his flag? Especially a German. Since the collapse of the Wall and the creation of their own army, I’ve noticed a new emphasis on civil liberties, chez eux. One always knows where that leads.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

David Gilmour is a novelist who’s earned the praise of literary figures as diverse as William Burroughs and Northrop Frye, and publications as diverse as The New York Times and People Magazine. His latest novel, Lost Between Houses, was a national bestseller in Canada and was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award. Gilmour was film critic for CBC-TV’s The Journal and The National for eleven years, and was the host of Gilmour on the Arts, a Gemini-award-winning arts talk show, for four years. He lives in Toronto.

From the Hardcover edition.

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