Night Navigation: A Novel

by Ginnah Howard

The house is cold. He doesn't look at her, just sits hunched at the kitchen table, with the hood of his sweatshirt up: under cover. Her son. He is even thinner than when she left.

Night Navigation opens on a freezing-rain night in upstate New York: the kindling gone; the fire in the wood stove out. Del's 37 year old manic-depressive son Mark is already in withdrawal and Del's afraid to make the long drive north to the only detox that has a bed.

Through the four seasons, Night Navigation takes us into the deranged, darkly humorous world of the addict -- from gun-toting dealers, to boot camp rehabs, to Koan-spouting NA sponsors. It also takes us into the repeating nightmare of a mother's anger, worry, despair, and hope. Mark cannot find a way to live in this world. Del cannot stop trying to rescue him. Through this long year's night, as Mark fitfully, painfully tries to steer toward the light, the steadfast love of mother and son is their sole sustaining grace.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547335971
  • ISBN-10: 0547335970
  • Pages: 324
  • Publication Date: 04/14/2010
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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About the Book
About the Author
  • About the Book
    Night Navigation opens on a freezing-rain night in upstate New York: the kindling gone, the fire in the woodstove out. Del’s thirty-seven-year-old manic-depressive son needs a ride, but she’s afraid to make the long drive north to the only detox that has a bed.

    Through the four seasons, Night Navigation takes us into the deranged, darkly humorous world of the addict—from break-your-arm dealers, to boot-camp rehabs, to Rumi-quoting NA sponsors. Al-Anon tells Del to “let go”; NAMI tells her to “hang on.” Mark cannot find a way to live in this world. Del cannot stop trying to rescue him. And yet, during this long year’s night, through relapse and despair, they see flare-ups of hope as Mark and Del fitfully, painfully try to steer toward the light.

    Told in the alternating voices of an addict and his mother, this riveting novel adds new depths to our understanding and our literature of parents and their troubled children.


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  • Excerpts

    1 : Home

    The house is cold. He doesn’t look at her, just sits hunched at the kitchen table, with the hood of his sweatshirt up: under cover. Her son. He is even thinner than when she left.
         The stink of cigarettes. Something rotting in the dark of a cupboard, and the sink is right to the top with dirty dishes, hardened strings of spaghetti, grease congealed in a pan. A still life. She could paint it on a wall of canvas: moldy glasses big as barrels, their funhouse faces wavering beyond. Welcome Home.
         The wood box is empty. She knows, without even going in there, what the bottom of the tub looks like. One whole end of the pole barn will be stacked high with trash, a month’s worth of garbage, leaking random pools on the floor. And all of it is pretty much how she thought it would be given what he was up to when she left.
         “I’m too sick to do anything,” he says. His hands pull at the sides of his hood.
         “I can see that.” Close the shutters. Goodbye.
         “Luke took off running with the Bensons’ dogs just before you came up the road.”
         When Luke didn’t come rushing to greet her, she’d hoped it was only this. How she’s missed that dog.
         “Some woman from your painters’ group called. It’s on the machine.”
         He finally looks her way. “If you can drive me up to Carla’s to get enough to where I can function for the next few days, I’ll be able to make the calls to line up a bed at a detox. I’ll get some wood in, clean up around here. Make me almost normal.”
         Through the window she watches the plastic tarp smack the uprights, most of the last few cords exposed: a lot of the logs will be wet. “All right,” she says.
         If you agree not to contaminate this space, she had told him — two years ago — you may stay until you become more stable. This, after she said he could not come home when he called desperate from Oregon. After she had refused to send him bus fare. After she had changed her phone number to unlisted. A week later she’d found him crashed in his drum-room down in the barn, the heat turned to eighty. A cigarette burn as big as a nickel between his fingers where he had passed out without even feeling it there.
         The path from the house to the wood is a slick of ice. It’s so March she almost laughs. Everything gray. Dank. Sleet finds its way down the back of her neck as she shifts the wood around, looking for a few small, semi-dry splits to start a fire. Hard to believe that only forty-eight hours ago she was kayaking on the Gulf toward a small island, ahead of her an egret, still, waiting: a shock of white in all that green. That’s what she’d like to put on the canvas: the shock of white on green. Or the light and dark of flesh. The life drawing group will be getting together again in Marna’s studio now that the hard cold is past.
         She hears barking, scans the hillside toward the Bensons’ for a dash of brown. Need to deal with the Bensons’ dogs on the loose. It’s the only time Luke leaves their land. Soon the Bensons’ hill will disappear. Once the leaves are on, no one would know anyone lives over here. Only another six weeks or so. The buds are already making their move.
         The stove is so full of ashes, they spill out as she opens the door. Above her in the loft she can hear Mark on the phone, putting together some arrangement that will yield him some of Carla’s morphine, what he needs to bring him to “almost ­normal.”
         She taps the stovepipe to hear how much buildup. Chunks of creosote crunch around the edges of the clean-out door when she starts to ease that open. Probably a lot of low smoky fires all of February. The stove was always Aaron’s job, something he took on when he was in sixth grade, the winter they moved into the stone house, the year after their father . . . after Lee’s death.
         There’s no newspaper. She needs something to get the fire going. She hates to risk the refrigerator. Any Buddha-calm she’s got left, or denial, may drop away. She reaches in, without really looking, and grabs what she knows will be a mostly empty, sour carton of milk. She rinses out the stink, shakes it good and crushes it under her heel. That, with a couple of ripped cereal boxes, has a fifty-fifty chance if the right amount of air goes between the splits.
         She hears Mark say he’ll get the whole two hundred he owes to Smithy when his money comes. Smithy, Carla’s boyfriend. Smithy’s got to be at least fifty, the same age as Carla. Ten years or so younger than she is. Drug accounting is complicated: food stamps, benzoid-meds, transport to buy, homegrown, miscellaneous. What equals what is open to interpretation. Anyway Mark may be gone by the time his disability check gets deposited. Tucked away in detox.
         Do not grasp the detox plan. It may happen; it may not.
         No kitchen matches. The book matches jar is empty as well. These will all have been used to cook up in a flare and now dozens of them will be out in the March muck, tossed from the loft window, still aflame, she supposes. Though it’s always painful to come upon these burnt offerings, she appreciates their honesty: This is what I’m doing — this week. She’s never actually seen Mark, any of them, in the act. Her first hypodermic encounters — something banging in the dryer, something dropping from a pocket in a stack of clothes getting bagged to go to the Salvation Army during one of Mark’s cross-country-bus times — produced a case of the shakes, left her breathless. Now when she stumbles on something, a blackened spoon behind a paint can in the barn, it may make her cry, but it’s no longer as if someone kicked her in the chest. She reaches back into the cupboard behind the flour. Kitchen matches, cached for just such occasions.
         But he’s been straight with her. Mostly. Her being his rep-payee for his disability money is critical. Gas to drive him to Mental Health when he’s going to Mental Health, when he’s taking his meds — his license suspended two years ago for not paying a speeding ticket. Food, heat, phone, DirecTV NBA pass, socks. Whatever it costs for him to be here comes right off the top. And he never tries to con any of that. What’s left is his. Usually about two hundred dollars. And it’s all gone in a couple of days. Running out of cigarettes caused hassles for the first couple of months. Him, needy and wanting an advance for just one more pack. The nine-mile trips to the Quickway in Stanton. The looming possibility that if he didn’t get a Camel, she’d end up having to drive him to Crisis on a night when freezing rain would increase her anxiety by times ten. She started buying six cans of tobacco, plus rolling papers, right out of his grocery fund. When his cigarette money is blown, he has the wherewithal to make his own. Which he hates doing. Please, may she never hear another whine for nicotine in any of her future lives.
         She tilts the top log at a good angle and opens the front vents all the way. She loves this big old stove, but it’s a bitch to start.
         “Definitely. If I end up getting a bed somewhere, then I’ll wire the money.”

  • Reviews
    "A gritty, unblinking, compassionate portrait of addiction – the deceptions, the exhausting repetitions, and most of all the agonizing dilemmas of parental love, which may or may not have the power to save but can never stop trying.” – Joan Wickersham, author of The Suicide Index

    "Kafka wrote that a book must be the axe to the frozen sea inside us. Ginnah Howard's astonishing debut novel, Night Navigation, is just such an axe: sharp and fierce, enlivening and enlightening. Howard's gripping tale of a mother who can't stop saving the very son who can't be saved lays bare the marrow of familial love--its messy desperation and its stubborn, enduring beauty." -- Maud Casey, author of Genealogy and The Shape of Things To Come

    "Ginnah Howard's raw, vivid account of addiction and codependency unflinchingly explores the vast darkness of guilt and despair. The stark, urgent voices of mother and son ache with anger and love, fear and hope. Howard's ability to dive so deep into the human psyche is a testament to her grace and compassion as a writer. Night Navigation will leave you breathless--a haunting, riveting debut." –Kiara Brinkman, author of Up High in the Trees

    "In this bold debut, Ginnah Howard navigates the precarious lives of her people with searing compassion and devastating honesty, opening our hearts to the dark wonder of shared grief and the flickering hope of forgiveness." – Melanie Rae Thon, author of Sweet Hearts

    "Night Navigation is unerring in its grasp of the multiple deceptions of the addictive relationship, the self-deceptions above all. You can't help getting furious at its characters. And you can't help loving them." -- Peter Trachtenberg, author of The Book of Calamities

    "I fully enjoyed and admired this sparely written, unspairing portrait of a deeply troubled American family. Ginnah Howard is a wonderful new writer." -- Hilma Wolitzer, author of Summer Reading

    "This dark debut is a wrenching account of a mother and son moving together and apart in an increasingly tragic family drama. In alternating memoirs, Del and Mark deal with heroin addiction and mental illness (his) and fears (hers) of a fate marked by junkies, pushers, halfway houses and recovery programs. But it's the persistent ghosts of a father and another son, and the guilt over their deaths that hold Del and Mark in a vise grip. Between grief and addiction, there's no easy forgiveness for these sad survivors. Through one bitter, lonely year, Mark and Del lose and find one another repeatedly, and they come to realize that loving someone means letting them love themselves. Howard is a graceful, spare and fluid writer, and her somber and bleak novel has the power to lift and inspire." -- Publishers Weekly

    "Harrowing first novel about the uneasy symbiosis of an addict and his mother. Del Merrick... returns from a Florida vacation to find that her heroin-addicted, manic-depressive son Mark has once again hit bottom.... Mark, whose point of view alternates with Del’s, is a well-drawn and sympathetic character, despite the unflinching portrayal of his narcissism—there’s no one he won’t manipulate while ricocheting between recovery and relapse.... Howard’s strength, besides lapidary language, is the ability to build scenes around quotidian activities: starting a wood stove, cleaning, walking a dog, cooking chili and, in a pivotal segment, plotting to banish a large colony of attic-dwelling bats. The red tape and repetitiveness of coping with an addicted adult child fuels suspense as the most pressing question persists: Will Del ever be free of the onus, even just in memory, of caring for all the tormented men in her life? Such stark scenarios will be cathartic for readers who have dealt with them firsthand, and profoundly cautionary for those who haven’t." -- Kirkus, starred review

    "As Night Navigation undulates between Del's point of view and Mark's, Howard lets their tense interactions and inability to communicate propel the novel, never attempting to rationalize their problems or forcing them to succumb to psychoanalytic cliches . . . The strength of this story pulls Howard's readers along, unable to turn away from a fierce mother and son who are determined to negotiate the future without having to 'detour around every moment of their past.'" -- New York Times Book Review