The Mercy of the Night by David Corbett

It’s impossible for me to talk about David Corbett’s The Mercy of the Night without talking about archetypes; not as the word is used currently in publishing and reviews, as in “a perfect example of a type,” but the psychological archetype, the deep, recurrent symbols that show up in our art and our stories. Corbett’s book is filled with archetypal characters, and at the center of them is Jacqi Garza, the girl who won’t accept the “types” being forced on her by her family, by law enforcement, and by her town.

When she was eight years old, Jacqi and another little girl were abducted by a child molester. Jacqi escaped. The other little girl didn’t, and her body was never found. Jacqi’s testimony put the abductor away for life, and made her a celebrity, a hero, in her home town of Rio Mirada. Jacqi was the Little Girl Lost, the Little Girl Come Home, but the town turned against her when she grew up to be a rebellious adolescent and a prostitute. Now Jacqi is involved in a high-profile crime again, again as a witness, and she struggles against the conflicting demands of the police, the media, the town and her family.

Rio Mirada is really the northern California town of Vallejo. Lately, Vallejo has been known for two things; in 1999, the abduction and murder of Xania Fairchild, and in 2008, a municipal bankruptcy. Corbett melded both of these incidents into The Mercy of the Night. The victim, Mike Verrazzo, is the head of the powerful fire-fighter’s union. During the numerous meetings leading up to the bankruptcy, the fire-fighter’s union refused to compromise or negotiate. When the bankruptcy orders came down, allowing the city to vacate its pension agreements, the fire-fighters, who were early in line as creditors, still came out better than some other municipal unions. Verrazzo is another classic archetype, the Scapegoat, and his murder is described in a way that is almost sacrificial.

Jacqi saw who dealt the killing blow, and everyone wants her. The police want to interview her. Her mother’s gangster boyfriend wants her out of town, so that she won’t bring attention to him. Her older brother Richie has secrets of his own he doesn’t want coming out. Nina Garza, Jacqi’s emotionally cold mother, just wants her gone.

Although Nina is Jacqi’s biological mother, she functions more like the Wicked Stepmother. (This mother, by the way, cold, withholding, obviously loving one child more than the other, is a familiar Corbett character.) Nina is actually over the top and her final act is melodramatic, if you try to see her as a realistic character. As the Wicked Stepmother, she’s about the middle of the pack. Against the victim child who is not the Princess, the Whore or the Little Girl Lost, Nina is a plausible foil.

Jacqi works as an archetype because she is also a thoroughly developed character. A true archetype is not just a mask and costume that the reader fills in, and Jacqi is a convincing adolescent, a convincing portrait of a damaged child. She is a smart woman who makes terrible decisions, partly because she is young and has the buoyance of adolescence, and partly because, in spite of herself, she has internalized the lessons of her brother and most especially her mother, whose one rule is that the women must “protect their men.” “Protecting them” means lying for them, accepting their blows and verbal violence, whoring for them and muling for them if necessary. It means always, always putting the needs of the men around you ahead of your own. As badly as she is doing it, Jacqi is trying to say “no” to that rule.

Phelan Tierney is a suspended lawyer currently working as a private investigator. He helps out at a diversion program for street prostitutes, and is tutoring Jacqi toward her GED. When “Fireman Mike” is killed, Tierney begins searching for Jacqi, wanting to help her. If Tierney is an archetype, he’d probably be The Man in the Dark Maze. He’s smart, verbal and brave, but is haunted by the death of his wife from cancer several years earlier. His girlfriend Cass was his wife’s oncology nurse. Clearly, Tierney is stuck. By the end of the book, he does come to see that he is using Jacqi as a substitute for his wife – trying to save one woman to make up for the one he couldn’t save.

Since the story is mostly Jacqi’s, I could accept that Tierney’s girlfriend is basically just “the good woman.” I would have liked to have seen a bit more of her inner life, but she is only there to help lead Tierney out of the maze and back into the world. She doesn’t succeed completely, as the disappointing final pages show. Corbett, surprisingly, resorts to a literary contrivance to finish up the book.

I was disappointed that Corbett didn’t cover the bankruptcy in more detail. The town, and to a large extent the story, accept the premise that the problems were all the fault of unions. There is one brief paragraph about a city council that “cooked the books,” but nothing more. Since the story focuses more on how people feel about the bankruptcy than the facts, I think my disappointment is more a question of expectation. While the bankruptcy could have used more air time, the subplot involving a police detective and his artistic son didn’t seem to add anything to this story. What matters in this book is that Vallejo, even more than usual, is financially devastated. Police patrols have been cut nearly in half due to staffing reductions and some areas are lawless. People like Nina Garza’s gangster boyfriend are moving into that vacuum and they don’t want their plans messed up because a teenaged girl saw a murder.

Corbett loves Vallejo, and it shows in tiny descriptions, like the papusa restaurant, and in more lyrical passages like the one where Tierney and Cass stop and study the landscape along the river. Scenes range from the mundane (a Marriott’s motel room) to the phantasmagorical, like the terrifying segment in a suburb filled with foreclosed homes turned into grow-houses.

What archetype is Jacqi? In some ways, she is like the Wanderer, as described in Jody Gentian Bower’s book Jane Eyre’s Sisters. The “journey of the wanderer” doesn’t match Jacqi’s quest completely, but many elements fit. Jacqi is a girl who won’t accept other people’s labels. She isn’t the Golden Girl; she isn’t the Little Girl Lost… she isn’t the “attention whore” or the rebellious child. She wants to make her own decisions and live her own life.

I liked The Mercy of the Night, and I liked it best when I was watching Jacqi trying to make her way through a wounded city. Corbett tells her story with economy and grace. I can’t help thinking what a fine independent movie this could be, and I hope it would be filmed in Vallejo.

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