Johanna Debiase’s review of Nocturne Variations, appearing in the Taos News.
“John Biscello’s newest novel, Nocturne Variations, is exactly what the title promises, a dreamy narrative landscape bursting with a lyrical kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and perspectives. The reader is given the pleasurable task of piecing together a puzzle from found ephemera of one young woman’s attempt to escape, not just a crime boss, but memories, adulthood, loneliness and herself.
Some people grow up too fast. They are thrust into maturity for any number of reasons and miss out on the joys and freedoms of childhood.
Other people are slow to mature. Late bloomers avoid adult responsibilities and extend their childhood beyond years that society deems acceptable.
But what about a person who does both? What if someone was forced to grow up fast, but held on dearly to childish things? What if Peter Pan had to take paternal responsibility for all the Lost Boys in a Neverland where the repercussions of careless actions were all too real?
Biscello rewrites Peter Pan, the iconic character who never grows up, as a 17-year-old runaway with a voracious appetite for beautiful young women and an addiction to a drug called Sike that gives one the sensation of childhood, ‘like that little girl who spins around and around and falls down and is happy.’
I, perched on a craggy promontory overlooking my childhood, and its entire formless geography, saw them, my friends, all of them: a mutant strain of cryogeny, a mummified quivering changelessness, as if youth hadn’t been lived through but pickled.
It stuck to them, like barnacled remnants of infanticide, like stillborn chunks of adolescence, and I re-directed my vision inward and saw the same thing, a sideshow in an airless tent.
People have called it the glow, the click, the hum, and for every abnormal drinker, for every addict, you are willing trade in everything for what amounts to a rigged facsimile of eternity. It is the sort of false eternity that swindles and seduces and you are happy to be swindled and seduced, to yield to the siren-call and the Salome of promises, to indulge the fatal basking. And so yes, Jung was right when he stated, “Addicts are frustrated mystics,” because the innate desire, the heartcave hunger is to commune with God, to connect with something bigger and purer and truer and deeper than what you know or what you have experienced, to connect with Other and live deeply warm and worry-free inside a dream, to cover impossible distances in the shortest, quickest, easiest manner possible. Addicts have a hard time taking the slow road to heaven. And busying oneself with the impossible is one way of protesting reality.
I understand that I am not only with my father and grandfather as family, but also as a writer. I am sketching them. The mechanical hand in my mind that never stops is charting and sketching and composing them. I feel that I am with them, but also at a great distance from them. I fictionalize my father as he speaks, as he gestures, what he says and does, what he doesn’t say and do. I am creating from him on the fly, a sort of metaphysical free sketch, drawing from his reality and unreality, and in that sense I am also creating myself. It is a relationship based on invention and rooted in artistic license. A part of me hates that I am doing this. Or maybe not hates but feels somewhat cunning and diabolical. And yet I can’t not do this, it happens naturally. I participate almost by default. It is an action that breeds a degenerate form of intimacy, which I crave.
I see and hear throughout dinner how my father so desperately wants to impress my grandfather, wants to be applauded by him, recognized, seen. My father bulldozes in with his own stories, his own flourishes of pride. He vacillates between recent past, distant past, and present, in crafting a small legacy to which my grandfather can respond with praise or compliments. This doesn’t happen. My grandfather either says nothing or somehow maneuvers the topic back to himself. In some ways it is painful to listen to these exchanges. No, not painful exactly, squeamish. And sad. And I knew the same was true for my father and me. A sad chain of fathers and sons, not hearing each other, not seeing each other, relations bereft of anything even remotely resembling intimacy. I was my father’s father as much as I was my father’s son. All of it relative in a broad, orchestral sense.
Anya and I had almost three weeks. The flirt and tease of a young forever.
It felt good to be with Anya in this new way. We were no longer ourselves, we were ourselves as a couple, this third and wholly original thing. I was her boyfriend, she was my girlfriend. We had titles. It was like something out of a sitcom.
It felt good but it also felt awkward. I now felt a new sense of pressure, a responsibility that I didn’t quite grasp or understand. Anya was mine and I was hers. What did that mean exactly? What were we supposed to be, how were we supposed to act?
My concerns and confusions took a backseat to the high of coupling. I was concerned and confused but I was in love, which was different from being concerned and confused and out of love.
Anya and I had always confided in each other, but these confidences now came with kissing and hand-holding. It was confiding with benefits.
That being said, the shadow of Anya’s relationship with Angelo hung over us. Or maybe it was the shadow of Anya’s relationship with herself that hung over me. Did the shadow of my relationship with myself hang over Anya? I didn’t ask because none of these notions were conceptualized at the time. They were latent and wordless, awaiting a future vocabulary.
Anya and I were hanging out in my living room. My father was in Atlantic City. My mother was dead. Had been for almost three years at that point.
We watched TV and drank screwdrivers. Anya had poured about half of Boris’s Smirnoff into a jar, and had re-filled his bottle with water. It was a trick she sometimes pulled. I provided the O.J.
Anya and I started making out. It went on for a long, tangled while. I ventured to Anya’s breasts, smoothing my hands over them through her shirt. Then my hands went under her shirt and I was in exciting, unfamiliar territory. My fingers explored the breast-sculpted fabric of her bra. I tried to unclasp the back of Anya’s bra while maintaining kiss-contact with her mouth, like I had seen men do in the movies, but I wasn’t skilled enough and my clumsy attempt at multi-tasking met failure.
Anya took the initiative and unclasped her bra while continuing to kiss me. She obviously possessed more cinematic grace than I did. Once her bra was off I lifted her shirt over her head and tossed it to the side, with what I imagined was a small measure of cinematic grace.
My mouth naturally gravitated toward Anya’s breasts, specifically targeting the nipples. I kissed and sucked what felt like pebbly buttons or rubbery pellets. My hunger for Anya’s breasts was commensurate with the sound of Anya’s desire. The louder and more intensely she moaned, the greater my feeding frenzy. I rubbed my eyes and nose and mouth and chin against the tender geography of her breasts. As a child I hadn’t been breast-fed, and wondered if something innate and primal was kicking in, some long forestalled urge and yearning.
Anya stopped moaning. And stayed stopped even though I kept teething. I looked up. Tears were streaming down her face.
I raised my head until it was level with hers.
What’s wrong, I asked, taking her hand.
My guess was that things had gone too far too fast. That, despite the speed and intensity which flavored other aspects of Anya’s life and persona, when it came to intimacy she liked to move slow.
What is it, I squeezed her hand.
There’s something I have to tell you, she said.
My stomach instantly dropped. The stomach is always the first to know, and the rest of your parts catch up later.
She told me how last night she had gone to Manhattan Beach with some of her friends.
I told her she had already told me that.
What I didn’t tell you, she continued, is that I ran into Angelo there. He was hanging out with his friends.
Angelo’s name, and Anya’s speaking of it, was the landmine I had been waiting to step on. I knew it was coming. I just didn’t know when, nor its setting. Now I knew. Last night at Manhattan Beach. Boom.
We started talking—
Did you kiss him?
Daniel will you listen—
Did you kiss him?
I swallowed an important breath.
Anya, did you kiss him?
Anya lowered her head.
Yes, we kissed.
I couldn’t see Anya’s face anymore. I wondered what it was doing. Then, despite the fact that there was no sound, I knew she was crying because of the way her head shook.
She looked up. I could smell the warm wet coming off her face. Her face was bright and pink and scarred with sorry. It was like looking directly into the open hurt of a child.
You are the last person on earth that I would ever want to hurt Daniel—
And yet you have. So what does that say about you Anya? What does that say about you?
I don’t know what that says about me. I guess it says I’m a fucked up person.
Anya went quiet. Perhaps she wanted me to swoop in and gentle a reprieve by telling her she wasn’t a fucked-up person. Perhaps she wanted me to act as judge, jury and executioner and rip into her. Whatever she wanted, all I had to offer was frigid silence. That sort of silence which deep-freezes the center of everything, even the words you manage to speak—Well I guess that’s it between us.
I waited for Anya to respond. A part of me hoped that Anya would tell me that it was a mistake, a foolish drunken moment, and that she didn’t want to be with Angelo, that she wanted to be with me, only me. Yet my stomach, the weather prophet, knew that wasn’t the case.
Daniel, Anya uttered my name softly, like a small wound.
Maybe it makes things worse. Or keeps everything the same. Which is a different kind of worse.
Anya I long to reach you only because I know that you are unreachable. It keeps my longing in a chrysalis state, a cocoon state. Nothing ever grows, it simply hums and palpitates and aspires toward growth. It is the shadow twin of growth.
Anya I couldn’t reach you in life, not your deep and true center, and I cannot reach you in death, so my relationship to you remains one of thorny and perpetual expectancy. To reach you would mean a betrayal of dreams. Or perhaps they are illusions masquerading as dreams. How to tell the difference?
If the center is where grief lies, I have been spanning the perimeter, dancing the same lame jig for far too long. Someone once wrote you should proceed from the dream outward. What about proceeding from reality inward?