THE LOST NIGHT
A Daughter's Search for The Truth
of Her Father's Murder
By Rachel Howard
Dutton. 272 pp. $24.95
"At about three thirty a.m. on June 22, 1986, someone entered, through an unlocked sliding-glass door, my father's house on the outskirts of the central California farming town where he had grown up," Rachel Howard notes in the prologue to her heartfelt memoir. "The intruder took a knife from the kitchen and stabbed my father as he lay sleeping next to his third wife. He was pronounced dead at the hospital an hour later."
That kind of scenario often introduces a slash-happy police procedural or blood-spattered true-crime story, but The Lost Night is neither of those. Howard is far more concerned with the long-term emotional consequences of murder than with the grisly details of the crime itself. Similarly, the truth to which she refers in her subtitle has less to do with finding Stan Howard's killer than with discovering who she is. Her decision to call the detectives who investigated the killing 16 years after it happened stemmed primarily from her long-held conviction that her father's death had left her "vulnerable and broken." Howard, a San Francisco-based arts writer, concluded that putting the pieces back together would require confronting her memories of the crime and her father, both of which she had long repressed.
But she was beset with doubts even as she sought out policemen and called long-estranged relatives who had been in contact with her father in the days before his murder. She was clear on her mission, she writes, but not on her motive: "I was trying to live my life according to some made-for-TV script wherein the heroine, haunted by her father's past, devotes her life to bringing his killer to justice. But that heroine wasn't me. . . . I'd never set out to 'solve' my father's murder. But then what had I set out to do? And how would I know when I had done it?"
Howard's search for lost time leads back to a childhood made difficult by the troubled adults on whom she depended. She persuasively observes that "ten is an especially inconvenient age to lose your father," a situation made even more dire by her unsteady living conditions. Her parents had "been good friends through high school before eloping on a whim" and landing in a marriage that quickly grew intolerable. At the mercy of her parents' subsequent, ill-chosen partners, Howard became "a professional stepchild" accustomed to mistreatment while shuttling back and forth between Fresno and Merced, Calif. She was often afraid of her father's third wife (unlike the second, with whom she still enjoys a close relationship), and her mother's second husband was a terror as well. An abusive jock-turned-drug addict, he once touched his lit cigarette to young Rachel's arm.
Howard endured these horrors, she writes, by a "trick of chronology" that erased them from her memory for long spells. She also coped by recording "serious feelings" in journals and on scraps of paper that she tucked into boxes. Howard writes that she tries to resist the melodrama to which she was prone during her adolescence, an avoidance that sometimes causes her to render even the most dramatic events of her life in a dry, curiously detached tone. In other instances, the flavor of journal-writing permeates her prose; Howard's recitation of events doesn't expand beyond the personal in ways that are likely to keep others involved. As a result, The Lost Night often comes off as self-therapy rather than as an engaging narrative from which others can hope to derive some measure of comfort or illumination.
The aroma of therapy is especially prevalent when she relates her high-school and college years, spent in a series of unhappy and occasionally obsessive relationships. She was "too stupid to see how desperately I was trying to compensate for my father's lost affection, how intensely I was playing out his love for me and his sudden disappearance, night after night." As if unsure that she is making her point, Howard repetitively notes her "patterns" with men. Her attraction to one man, for instance, was motivated by her fear that his affection toward her, like her father's, "was too good to last." Sex with "one boyfriend after another" was "a fix against loneliness, against the unbearable temporary absence of a man's attentions."
Howard has the chops to unveil a lyrical passage when so inclined. Her recollection of a pleasant summer night at the stock-car races easily conveys the languid charm of an evening when all is right with the world and everything seems possible: "The night is warm, and even though I can't see a single star through the glare of the stadium lights, I can imagine them in the sky, still and quiet above the chaos of the insects and the thrilling hard-metal symphony of half a dozen souped-up engines." But such examples are rare.
Like the detectives who have yet to solve the case, Howard never determined the identity of her father's killer. Nor does Howard demonstrate that her quest for relevant details led to her relatively content and "whole" life as a successful adult. Her journey to fulfillment seems more a result of her natural, albeit painful, maturity than of any fitful investigation of the crime that changed her life so significantly. However, she does recover enough fragments of memory to construct an image of her father as a flawed, hard-living, hard-loving man who definitely loved his daughter. Before writing the book, Howard felt as if she "never had a legitimate claim" on her father. "I had been so young; I had remembered so little," she writes. "Who was I to assert my own attachment to him?" If it accomplishes nothing else, The Lost Night illuminates a bond between father and daughter that neither time nor death can undo. *
Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World.