I recently read the debut novel by Matthew Sullivan, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. You will probably find this book in general fiction, but you might find it in the mystery section. If you do, we aware that there are two mysteries that need to be untangled, but the book is mostly a study of trauma and isolation; an exploration on the effect of secrets on people and relationships.
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is set in the mid-1990s, somewhere between 1995 and 1999. Lydia works at the Bright Ideas Bookstore in Denver. She is a private person who loves her customers, especially some of the homeless men who come into the bookstore for shelter and comfort. In particular, she has a rapport with a young homeless man named Joey. When the book opens, Joey hangs himself in a room on the bookstore’s second floor. Lydia finds him, and in his pocket he has a picture of her as a child—a picture of herself Lydia has never seen before.
Joey left all his possessions to Lydia, and they turn out to be mostly defaced books; defaced in a particular way. Soon Lydia is working to decode the message Joey left in the damaged books; to give a voice to the troubled young man’s last message. The story then reveals Lydia’s past; the lone survivor of a horrifying massacre, raised by an incompetent father who took her away from everything after the attack and basically left her to raise herself. As Lydia tries to figure out who Joey was, figures from the past she has tried to escape return to her life.
Sullivan’s line-by-line writing is beautiful, and his depiction of two men who are each, in their own way, hoarders, is well-done. Lydia is a believable character; while her father is less so. The mystery of the attacker, nicknamed the Hammerman, becomes as important as Joey’s personal secrets. I read a lot of mysteries, so I figured out who the Hammerman was about fifty pages before the characters did. I didn’t really care, because the point of this story is not to determine Who Done It, but to see whether Lydia will ever feel able to step out of the shadows – and whether the deep wound in her relationship with her father can be healed.
There is also a pleasant puzzle involving Joey’s last message, and I got out a notepad and pencil and played along with the characters.
Sullivan’s writing is often funny. I thought he evoked parts of Colorado, and a certain time, convincingly; he created the sense of dislocation you have when you go back to a place from your childhood, decades later, and have to mentally remap it because of all the changes. Sullivan is also someone who can plot a novel. Many short story writers cannot. The structure, the pacing and the purpose of a novel is completely different and many short story writers fail badly. Even though parts of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore read like linked short stories, and even though each character appears in a set-piece that “characterizes” them (a common general-fiction convention) the through-line and the pacing are right for a novel.
We’re heading into winter; long dark nights perfect for reading. While Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is very dark in spots, it ends on a hopeful note. I enjoyed it.