Title: Nightswimmer: A Novel
Author: Joseph Olshan
Publisher: Open Road Media
Length: 244 Pages
Category: Literary Fiction
At a Glance: Whether you like Will or not will likely affect your reading experience—he’s flawed, as is Sean, and those imperfections make them human, adding another healthy dose of realism to the story.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: Ten years ago, Will Kaplan and his lover went for a night swim in the Pacific Ocean—but only Will emerged. In the decade that followed, Will relocated to the other end of the continent, filling his days with shallow and pointless affairs, unable to come to terms with the bizarre disappearance that could have been a tragic drowning, a well-planned abandonment, or both.
While immersing himself in New York’s gay bar and disco scene, and a hedonistic Fire Island culture darkened by the grim specter of AIDS, Will meets Sean Paris, a young man as tortured and damaged by the past as Will himself. Drawn together by mutual doubts, needs, secrets, and obsessions, the intense relationship that they form will make waves in their circles of friends and ex-lovers, transforming Will’s life forever.
Review: “And so, no matter where I am, I remain exactly where I lost him.” — Joseph Olshan, Nightswimmer
I have author Michael Scott Garvin and the prologue of A Faithful Son to credit for pointing me to this novel. First published in 1994, Olshan’s Nightswimmer reflects its era in the evolving social and sexual mores under the specter of AIDS. Will Kaplan narrates the story, which follows the progression and regression of his relationships—from his college days when he met and fell in love with a fellow student we know only as him for the better part of the story, to his current ex-lovers and friends, and then, to one man in particular, Sean Paris.
What sets this novel apart from anything I’ve ever read before is Olshan’s narrative and stylistic choice. The story reads like a memory, an epistle and a dramatic monologue, and then, it also has a sort of stream of consciousness feel to it, where Will is telling his story to both the reader and to Sean himself, and time jumps from present to past to present. There are points when the timeline and telling are disjointed—whether that was by design or not, I don’t know, but it fit the delivery of events as Will chose to reveal them. Olshan’s storytelling method is decidedly unusual, and reading a novel in which the protagonist is narrating events and conversations to a character who’s already directly involved in them on a personal level, lends itself to the idea that the events are more reminiscence than real-time occurrences. It takes some getting used to, some readers may never warm up to it, yet it also complements the overall tone and mood of the novel, which is poignant and heavy with dramatic events of the heart.
Nightswimmer is a character driven novel, which means it’s not action packed or flashy. It’s rather subdued, in fact, because of its themes of loss—the giving away of oneself and the loss of first love and the him-shaped hole left where that person once existed but is no longer. Grief plays a major part in this novel and adds to its pathos, with regret playing alongside loss and past mistakes that can’t be undone.
Will and Sean have each lost what they would define as their one great love, and those losses have each left their own scars that act as emotional barricades to their ability to make a deeper connection with each other. They are each stagnating under the weight of never having found real closure, and it affects their interactions with each other from the start. While, for obvious reasons, I can’t speak on a personal level to Will’s or Sean’s experiences, I can say that the universal themes and the events of our shared human condition are expressed in a touching and coalescent way. Unrequited love, emotional manipulation, learning to trust—and sometimes neither winning nor earning that trust—each play their part in Nightswimmer. These are all factors that made the story not only an interesting character study, as well as an engrossing examination of relationships and their lasting impact, but spans the divide between personal understanding and the ability to empathize outside of one’s own life experiences.
Joseph Olshan’s writing is captivating and atmospheric, the story he tells at once evocative as well as provocative. Nightswimmer is a novel upon whose pages a chance meeting brings two men together and then portrays their snarled entanglements of past and present, and the complexity of commitment and emotions. Whether you like Will or not will likely affect your reading experience–I can’t say I always did–but he’s flawed, as is Sean, and those imperfections make them human, adding another healthy dose of realism to the story. There is no tidy ending for the sake of romantic tropes, nor are the issues that still plague Will and Sean glossed over or magically swept away for the sake of a happily-ever-after. Their story is interesting and complex, and is as relevant today as it was in the decade in which the book was originally published.
You can buy Nightswimmer: A Novel here: