Review: The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin

“All you have to do is believe and let go, and you’ll have all the proof you need”. 

Genre: General adult fiction, mystery, LGBTQ+, #ownvoices

Similar to: No one writes like Armistead Maupin

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of Tales of the City

Publication date: 14th September 2000

How much do I love Armistead Maupin as an author? *Stretches arms apart until something pops in my shoulder* thiiiiis much!πŸ’™πŸ’šπŸ’›πŸ’œ 

I’ve mentioned a few times about his excellent Tales of the City series, which were the first books I ever read with gay/trans characters living essentially normal lives (well, as much as you can when you all live together in an amazing old house with an incredible landlady who gives a free joint to all her new tenants). The books are absolutely years ahead of their time and have a special place in my heart. So when I learnt that Armistead Maupin had written other books outside of the series I was intrigued – especially when I learnt that The Night Listener had been made into a film with none other than Robin Williams! Plus it fitted a #ReadHarder category so I decided to give it a whirl.

In a similar way to Tales of The City, The Night Listener is weirdly prescient for a book written in the 90’s. It’s a Roman Γ  clef (oooh, fancy! It means novel with a key, where a book is about real life but there’s a fictional element and the key is the link between the two) based around a writer, Gabriel Noone. Noone has his own late-night slot on the radio where he recites his stories. He receives the draft autobiography of one of his young fans, Peter, who claims to have suffered horrendous sexual abuse as a child and has now developed AIDS. Noone contacts Peter and they begin a paternalistic, touching long distance telephone relationship but as time goes on Noone begins to suspect that Peter might not be who he says he is…

I really loved reading this book. The “mystery” element is woven into such a touching and elegant storyline that it ceases to be the main thrust of the narrative – this book is far more about relationships (particularly father/son), family, the secrets we keep to protect others and love in all it’s many forms. 

For a book with so many layers (and some pretty dark subject matter) I didn’t expect humour – but there’s a lightness to his writing that Maupin seamlessly weaves into the narrative. The inclusion of the minutiae of everyday life, the petty worries, the awkward family meals – even the pun in the name Noone (he’s suffering from writer’s block – he thinks he’s no-one in the literary world anymore) all give some light relief and a sense of normality to what could be a very depressing book. It helps that this is an #ownvoices novel – I don’t think anyone else could write about the jealousy they felt when they realised their terminally ill partner might not die imminently and could possibly live without him with such honesty and emotion.

I found The Night Listener was hugely compelling. I loved all of the characters and the way that they related to each other was just so sweet and funny and touching that it gave me all the feels. It was nice to see some Tales of the City characters pop up too – like greeting old friends. I like to know that they’re all ok (I’m aware of how mad this sounds). 

As the story progressed, elements of doubt started to seep in about Peter and the veracity of his story. For much of the novel I really wasn’t sure of what to think – it helped that early on Gabriel announced that he was liable to embellish stories about his own life, so was somewhat of an unreliable narrator. This kept me engaged, especially as the book got darker as it went on. For the most part though it remained fairly light – like a cozy mystery but with huge emotional depth that dealt with difficult, scary themes. 

For a book released in the year 2000 the topics it deals with still feel extremely relevant today. Remember, this was a time before social media, the internet was in it’s infancy and photoshop involved snipping your ex out of a photo with a pair of scissors. So to write about having an honest persona in a digital relationship makes the book incredibly relevant today. Thankfully, the thing that does date it is the treatment available to AIDS sufferers – obviously this has improved dramatically in recent years ☺.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Night Listener. I loved the emotion of the writing, the topics that it covered, the humour and the sadness and everything in between. The mystery element was intriguing and related well to the overarching themes of love in all it’s many forms, paternity, and the preparation for a death that might not be so imminent. 

Rating: Four “Roberta blows” out of five.

Beautifully written, cleverly constructed and relatable in a way that a book written 18 years ago really shouldn’t be, this is a brilliant story about human emotion – with a mystery thrown in for good measure. 

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #21 Read a mystery by a person of colour or an LGBTQ+ author


8 thoughts on “Review: The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin

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