At Night We Walk in Circles

By Daniel Alarcon

Riverhead, $27.95, 384 pages

Who is this author?

Born in Peru, raised in Alabama and now living in California, 36-year-old Daniel Alarcon has already enjoyed the singular honor of being named to The New Yorker’s coveted “20 best writers under 40” list. He has so far published “War By Candlelight,” a short story collection, and “Lost City Radio,” a novel that won  the 2009 International Literature PrizeHe has contributed to Granta, McSweeney’s, n+1 and Harper’s, and is considered one of the most talented of our young Latino writers.

What is this book about?

Nelson wants to be an actor, but his life script is not working out. His girlfriend is cheating on him, his brother has abandoned their widowed mother and left her to Nelson’s care and he can’t get his acting career in gear. But then he’s hired to play a big role by a troupe that is doing a classic play by his favorite author. But again, things don’t work out as he had hoped. The touring play moves across Nelson’s civil-war-damaged South American country and he becomes ever more caught up in the lives of the cast members, among whom a hidden betrayal is about to burst forth and cause havoc. Told by a narrator, which suggests Nelson’s fate may be unwelcome, this is a story about the thrill of playing roles and the dangers of role-playing.

Why you’ll like it:

Alarcon is a sharp new talent with the energy of a young writer and the skill of a much older one. The book explores personal and political rebellion and the considerable costs of both as well as the exhilaration of acting and the confusion it can create when playing a part crosses over into real life. This is a complex story that asks the reader to peel back many layers to get to the meat of the tale.

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, November 2013 review says: “A young man, hopelessly in love with his ex-girlfriend, lands a part in a revival of a controversial political drama. He journeys with his childhood hero, the playwright, through tiny towns scattered along the sparsely-populated mountainside. This hardly seems like the normal territory of a thriller but At Night We Walk in Circles delivers suspense to spare with tightly-written narratives, modern phrasing, and crisp character studies by Peruvian-born author Daniel Alarcón. Told through the eyes of a narrator who sprinkles in knowing tidbits about the ultimate fate of the young man, the story builds in momentum while simultaneously taking quiet forays into a world of dashed dreams, complex family obligations, and everyday dilemmas that are relatable even when set in an unnamed, Latin American metropolis or an eerily empty village. At Night We Walk in Circles pointedly delves into universal themes: life as merely a series of performances and small gestures that have inexplicable consequences. Like moths to a flame, it’s the desire to blindly follow that will ultimately lead to our downfall.”

In The New York Times Book Review, author Ana Menendez writes: “…wise and engaging…a provocative study of the way war culture ensnares both participant and observer, the warping fascination of violence, and the disfiguring consequences of the roles we play in public. The story unfolds in an unnamed South American country, but its concerns resonate far beyond its imaginary borders…With At Night We Walk in Circles, Alarcón fulfills the promise of his two earlier books…delivering a vibrant, ambitiously political story that derives its power from the personal. The rare lapse into abstraction quickly gives way to particulars described with devastating clarity. We are left with pure story, one that seems to question even its own motives while refusing to take sides in a world stripped of illusions.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A South American theater troupe revisits an anti-establishment play and generates some new drama in the latest political allegory by Alarcón (Lost City Radio, 2007). As in Lost City Radio, this novel is concerned with the aftereffects of revolution and the surprising ways revolutionary rhetoric endures. Set in an unnamed Andean country, the story centers on Nelson, an aspiring actor who lands a role with Diciembre, a theater company that’s dusting off its best-known work, “The Idiot President,” for a revival. As the play’s title suggests, Diciembre’s work wasn’t subtle, but it was a touchstone 25 years previously, and its author, Henry, did time in a notoriously harsh prison for it. Henry and his colleague Patalarga take on Nelson for the tour, and though the three have an easy rapport, we know early something has gone wrong: The narrator is a reporter who’s quoting everybody involved except Nelson. Alarcón’s decision to frame the story as a superlong magazine story has its downsides: The novel has a tonal flatness that makes the story feel lighter than intended. But the outsider-looking-in perspective gives the narration both a sense of omniscience and intimacy, since the reporter knew the players. As the tour goes off the rails, Alarcón explores the idea of how imitation creates reality: The play’s restaging revives old revolutionary feelings; Nelson obsesses over his role with the woman he left behind; and he falls into the orbit of a family who’s bullied him to pretend to be a long-lost relative. In time, Nelson unwittingly becomes the target of a number of men, an absurd scenario that’s shot through with tragedy. Mind who you pretend to be, Alarcón suggests; the story you tell can be a surprisingly potent one. That’s true with this book, too. Though the book is low on lyricism, Alarcón successfully merges themes of art, love and politics.

Says Booklist in a starred review: “After the stunning, metropolitan sprawl of Lost City Radio (2007), Alarcón situates his riveting second novel in the backwaters of an unnamed South American nation. For Nelson, an out-of-work actor, it seems as if everyone has moved on: his one-time lover lives with another man, his brother long ago left for the U.S., and he’s stuck at home with his widowed mother. But when the newly revived, controversial theater company Diciembre casts Nelson in a traveling remount of The Idiot President, he joins Patalarga, a founding member, and Henry Nuñez, a playwright imprisoned during the show’s original run. At first, Nelson immerses himself in the world of the play, performing in taverns and city squares, until the tour brings the trio to the hometown of Rogelio, Henry’s former cellmate and confidante. Henry’s past and Nelson’s future converge, setting the stage for a fast-unraveling mystery of role-playing and retribution, told in compelling prose that is smart, subtle, and totally engrossing. Alarcón possesses Alejo Carpentier’s gift for evocative descriptions of anonymous geography, and one sees shades of Manuel Puig in the passages that recount Henry’s incarceration, both of which bode well for this native Peruvian’s bright literary future.”

“In an unnamed South American country, now stable after much political and social upheaval, Henry Nuñez, an actor and playwright who was a political prisoner, decides to reestablish his political theater troupe and tour the country. He recruits Nelson, a young actor, and Patalarga, an old friend, and they hit the road, performing Henry’s play, The Idiot President, a three-character work that was originally responsible for landing Henry in jail. As the tour progresses and young Nelson is urged to live the part of his character, life and art become intermingled and confused. A first-person narrator—a magazine writer who happens upon the troupe at one of their rural stops—gradually intrudes upon this multilayered story. The basic narrative focuses on Nelson as he follows in Henry’s footsteps. VERDICT This is an involving and dramatic story in a vague yet realistic landscape. PEN USA award winner Alarcón (Lost City Radio) strings the reader along expertly as he slowly complicates and shifts the perspective in this tragic tale of characters, citizens, lovers, and artists being influenced by the dangerous forces of political history and human desire,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

“At Night We Walk in Circles” can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Park branch.

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