Wise Condescension

At Night We Walk in Circles

By Daniel Alarcón (Riverhead Books, 2013)


Daniel Alarcón’s latest novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, is a lush, technically adroit stab at what may best be described as art-crime comedy, a noirish narrative that keeps its considerable levity stitched to South American survival tactics and the kind of succor that might only be scored while pursuing wild dreams mired in class-oriented chaos.

 The Peruvian writer’s third book reads like a treatise on loop holes and lost wholes, like some literary novelization of of Scooby Doo, where grown-ups know that meddling kids are obviously the problem but also the only hope. Nelson, the main character, is a guy having a hell of a time.  His brother has split the South American scene, his wife is sleeping with another dude, and his dad has died. Nelson will, at the end of his tether and at the inception of a new life, look for answers and sustainability in the world of acting.

 Alarcón offers up the fraught life of a tense young man who understands that the ties to his history are under constant economic erasure and that his fate is enmeshed in a theater troupe notorious for reprising a play called “The Idiot President.” His prose, which owes much to Ionesco and Pirandello, excites and does not overstay its sense of authority.

There is an affection and an estimable amount of depreciation that goes into this story where a politically inspired theater group is detailed with habits and hang ups that might possess a court-appointed throng of AA attendants: “There ranks were drawn, broadly speaking, from the following overlapping circles of youth: the longhairs, the working class, the sex-crazed, the poseurs, the provincials, the alcoholics, the emotionally needy, the rabble-rousers, the opportunists, the punks, the hangers-on, and the obsessed.”

 The inner workings of a playwright who will be hailed and jailed for his insight on social ills are displayed in pages of extreme solipsism that takes the form of diary pages wherein he bemoans his missed opportunities as an actor, notes (like some Beckett character) the amount of eggs he consumes, as well as the time of day he gets and loses erections.

There is wise condescension in the charming challenge that is At Night We Walk in Circles, a book that reads like a hymn of anticipation in the dark, especially when alluding to the smiling faces, as one of Alarcón’s characters notes, of people embarking on a late night bus trip that could end in death but will likely stop at the market.

Roberto Ontiveros