The fourth story in Nocturnes is entitled Nocturne and is the longest of the five contained therein. Does this have meaning?
I don’t know, my friend. I don't know. Some things don’t.
Nocturne concerns a first-person narrator, Steve, who is a professional saxophone player, which satisfies at least two of the requirements for stories in this book—that they present first-person narrators who are musicians.
Steve tells a story to his narratee that begins: “Until two days ago, Lindy Gardner was my next-door neighbor.”
This is very interesting because it’s the only time characters “migrate” across the stories, Lindy being a character from the first section, Crooner. We know a bit about Lindy from that story, and this knowledge informs our reading of Nocturne, which takes place some months after the events in Crooner. This is a good example of there being more than one audience for a story. In this case, we have the narratee, the person whom Steve is addressing in his narration, and we have the authorial audience who knows things Steve does not, and who is addressed by the implied author.
Steve is not as successful in his career and marriage as he’d like to be. Somewhat like the narrator of Malvern Hills, he is resentful about this and bemoans “fake” success—success that is not based on real talent but connection. His manager suggests he get a facelift because it’s felt that Steve’s physical unattractiveness is holding back his real talent. Of course, he resists the idea as fakery and also has no money, but his wife supports the scheme, and then leaves Steve for another fellow who, perhaps improbably, agrees to pay for Steve’s cosmetic surgery.
Yes, the story has a slapstick feel.
Steve decides to get the surgery, hoping that his wife will return to him if he’s more attractive and successful. The procedure is done, and Steve goes to recover in a posh Beverly Hills hotel where his next-door neighbor is—you guessed it—Lindy Gardner, also recovering from cosmetic surgery. Both characters have bandages covering their faces except for eye slits. Lindy invites Steve over; Steve is reluctant because he feels Lindy is a poster child for fakery, a no talent person who has become a celebrity due to connection but agrees to visit anyway.
Well. We can see right off that there is a lot of irony in this tale. Steve, who rails against fakery and nurtures his authenticity as an artist, agrees to undergo a “fake” procedure not to make his career a success but to win back his wife. And, although he dislikes Lindy Gardner (her commercial image) he’s willing to engage with her when he realizes she’s a neighbor.
Steve and Lindy hang out, play chess (there’s no romance at all, never comes up). At Lindy’s request, Steve plays her one of his CDs but this provokes a curious reaction—Lindy turns cold and dismissive. Steve is hurt, but Lindy apologizes, saying that she always has a negative reaction to real talent. Steve’s playing moved her, but also made her angry because it was so genuinely good. (we know from Crooners that this is an issue for Lindy; Steve does not know because he hasn’t read Crooners).
Steve learns that a colleague, Jake Marvel, is going to receive an award for Jazz Musician of the Year during a ceremony at the hotel. He is resentful, believing that Jake, unlike him, lacks talent. He complains to Lindy about this.
Lindy reveals that late at night (nocturne-ally) she likes to prowl around the huge hotel. She steals the award Jake is supposed to receive, and gives it to Steve, saying that he is the rightful honoree. Steve is upset and convinces her they must return the award.
This leads to a long slapstick scene wherein Steve and Lindy, their heads bandaged and wearing dressing gowns, search the darkened hotel for the place Lindy took the award. Along the way, they get into a huge argument over—you guessed it—fake vs, authentic success.
When Steve vacillates over whether or not they should return the award, Lindy questions Steve’s belief that Jake is unworthy.
“The trouble with people like you, just because God’s given you this special gift, you think that entitles you to everything. That you’re better than the rest of us…you don’t see that there’s a whole lot of other people weren’t as lucky as you who work really hard for their place in the world…” Steve responds: “I sweat and heave and break my balls to come up with something worthwhile, something beautiful, then who gets the recognition? Jake Marvell! People like you!”
More comedy: Lindy stuffs the award inside a turkey carcass about to be served at the buffet. Steve has difficulty getting it out because it’s stuck way inside. He finally does; he and Lindy hurry upstairs. They leave the award on someone’s room service tray and go to Lindy’s room.
Steve confesses to Lindy that he’s been hoping the facelift will bring his wife back to him. Lindy says life is bigger than just loving one person, that he should pursue success. Steve says goodnight.
And when they see each other again, just before Lindy goes home, everything feels different. Lindy seems unfriendly and dismissive.
Steve concludes “So that’s the story of my time as Lindy Gardner’s neighbor.” He talks to his wife Helen again, and tries to determine whether she might be interested in reconciliation but receives no clear signal.
“Maybe Lindy’s right. Maybe, like she says, I need some perspective, and life really is bigger than loving a person. Maybe this really is a turning point for me, and the big league’s waiting. Maybe she’s right.”
An intriguing tale, especially as it’s arrayed with the others we’ve discussed. Is Steve unreliable as a narrator? Prrapps so, the maestro says. I wonder about that ending—it seems like a huge change of heart for Steve to say maybe Lindy’s right, and that the whole story is a turning point for him. The big league’s waiting. It’s waiting, but I don’t see Steve joining it—despite the face lift and the way he claims he’s transformed after the encounter with Lindy Gardner. Maybe Lindy’s distance at the end means something—she knows that Steve’s unable to take her advice.
Hold up! you say. It could be that Steve really has reached a turning point and will now embrace “fake” success.
Maybe, I say. But maybe not. Such a transformation would go against the way his character is shown in the whole story.
I imagine Steve sitting alone in his hotel room, head still covered in bandages, telling this story about how Lindy Gardner was his neighbor. Telling it to himself because there’s no one else there.
‘Kay. Next week, we’ll look at the last story in the book, Cellists.