What happened to Nelson? For nearly all of At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcón’s brooding new novel, the fate of this unworldly young actor is unknown.
With dreams of his immigration to the United States dashed and his girlfriend living with another man, Nelson is drifting through his early 20s, haunting the cafes of his unnamed Latin American city, which is newly gentrified after years of war and poverty (think Bedford-Stuyvesant).
Then he wins a place in the “guerrilla” theater troupe, Diciembre, which made a splash in the 1980s with its boldly subversive plays. The small troupe is leaving the city to tour the countryside, presenting a revival of its notorious show, The Idiot President, which proved so threatening to the former regime that its writer (and Nelson’s hero), Henry Nuñez, was thrown in prison.
The weeks of this life-changing tour are recreated by Alarcón’s obsessive young narrator, a man not all that different from Nelson himself. Through interviews with Nelson’s friends, acquaintances and people he saw or met along the way, Alarcón’s dogged investigator reveals the inexorable series of events and circumstances that brought Nelson to the brink, and shows how the past, present and future can never be separated. As the book nears an end and Nelson’s return to the city grows imminent, the mystery deepens until the surprising, sudden climax.
Alarcón, whose list of awards and accolades would need a page of their own, is the author of the story collection War by Candlelight and the novel Lost City Radio. He has been named one of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” and has drawn comparisons to literary giants such as Steinbeck, Nabokov and García Márquez. A more contemporary, if facile, comparison can be made to Roberto Bolaño, the late Latin writer whose novels still seem to pop up. The investigative style of Alarcón’s book brings to mind parts of Bolaño’s classic—though flawed—breakout work, The Savage Detectives.
A thick, fierce story of pathos and obsession, At Night We Walk in Circles is sure to be an important part of Alarcón’s growing oeuvre. At its best, it is impressively Shakespearean in its ultimate lesson: that even the calmest hearts contain a hurricane.