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Colm Toibin's third book of fiction is not so much a novel as three novellas with the same alienated narrator, whose prospects are sketched out on the back of a form by an AIDS researcher. "He drew a large L and then put the pen at the top of the vertical line. 'This,' he said, 'is the state of your health now.' Then he slowly drew the declining graph until it hit the edge of the bottom line. 'This,' he said, 'is the way things are going to go. Do you understand?'"
Richard Garay, son of an Argentine father and an embittered English mother, has emerged from childhood with neither roots nor friends. The closest he comes to intimacy is in fleeting sexual encounters with other men. Garay is sleepwalking through life. But then, so is most of Buenos Aires. The military has taken power, and people react to disappearances and torture by averting their eyes. Toibin, a former journalist who covered the trial of Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, creates a numbing sense of how life flattens and shrinks under such conditions. And when reality does intrude -- in a glimpse of driverless cars outside police headquarters, for instance, engines revving to provide extra voltage for the cattle prods -- his images explode on the page like land mines.
The Falklands War uncorks a nationalistic fervor that changes everything. After Argentina's defeat, the junta is thrown out, advisors and public relations people are ushered in and the newly ambitious Garay, clinging to their coattails, is transformed -- too quickly, perhaps -- from bored and misanthropic language school teacher to political consultant. He makes money from rigged contract bids. He travels to conferences and cruises the saunas. And when he falls in love with Pablo, the son of a not-quite-leading politician, he comes close to being likable -- perhaps because, for the first time in his life, he senses the possibility of happiness. People are no longer being dragged away and thrown out of helicopters. But old fears have been replaced by new ones, and the arrival of two of Pablo's friends from San Francisco brings a different kind of terror into abrupt and pitiless focus.
Toibin has not taken an easy path in writing The Story of the Night, with its claustrophobic setting and manipulative, self-centered protagonist. This is a book about fear and the consequences of fear when it is pushed to the limits. That it turns out to be such a fierce and convincing affirmation of love as the only source of redemption is a tribute to the writer's courage in looking into the darkest of mirrors and to his consummate skill in describing what he sees there. -- Salon