Straight Through the Night

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Chuck Deckle, the central figure in Edward Allen’s first novel, at first appears to be a romantic dreamer, He rhapsodizes about the feeling of driving through the pre-dawn darkness, watching the planet Venus, on his way to a new job. It becomes clear, however, that Deckle uses his fantasies to set himself apart from, and above, the people with whom he works; when he has tried to share his visions of beauty with them, they have failed to understand, and therefore they are less worthy than Deckle.

Deckle also uses his dreams to defend himself against the raw realities of the butcher trade, into which he has fallen almost by accident. He mentions several times that he has gone to an exclusive prep school and a trendy New England college, from which he dropped out after this third year, but it is never entirely clear, even to him, how Deckle reached his present position. Clearly, however, the business he has chosen is fascinating to him.

Deckle is not skillful at his trade. His first employer tells him that he is no butcher, and he never improves much: ’The problem I’ve always had in the butcher business is that I was never any good at cutting meat.” Because he is never good at his job, and because his fellow-workers recognize that he does not share their backgrounds or interests, he is yelled at continually. He hates being yelled at, but he refuses to quit and find a more congenial profession.

In the course of Straight Through the Night Deckle holds several jobs, three for extended periods of time. In the first, he seems to have found a job he can do, filling orders in the cooler at Denny Packing in Manhattan. He is regarded as slow, but he is not fired and the boss seems to find him tolerable. When an apparently better opportunity comes along, however, with a new meat business in a northern suburb, Deckle leaves Denny Packing.

Working for Carl Miller, Deckle delivers meat in an unrefrigerated truck and does some meat cutting. He is underpaid and overworked; when he protests, Miller tells him that he can do better if he invests in the business. For a brief moment, an uncle’s will seems to provide such an opportunity, but the chance evaporates. Miller, it turns out, is a thief and a swindler, and when he absconds the company collapses, leaving Deckle once more without a job.

Deckle tries substitute teaching, hoping to elevate himself by engaging in a more respectable profession, but he does not really like children, and butchering holds too much fascination for him. The reason for this becomes clearest when he takes a job on the “killing floor” of a slaughterhouse. His is the lowest job there is: taking the internal organs, the heart, the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, from the freshly killed carcasses of cows and calves. Deckle loves the job, describing it lovingly and in full detail. He concludes, after admiring the man whose job it is to pick rennet from the cow’s stomachs: It occurred to me that this was the real world, what work is supposed to be: hard, noisy, and dirty, but with a kind of ragged joy to it, the kind of place where people would always say ’Good morning.’”

Deckle loses this job after a single day; working for Miller has put him on the union’s blacklist. He gravitates to a job in Glatt Mart, a kosher meat market in the northern suburbs of New York, as ugly as its name. Working for Howie Shapiro, he makes deliveries, he sweeps, does some rudimentary butcher work, and serves as a scapegoat for Shapiro and his assistant, Mack. They blame Deckle for all anti-Semitism, past, present, and future, and resent the insensitivity of some of his questions.

Deckle tries to resist his own feelings of resentment, but he becomes more and more bigoted. He draws swastikas on cans of fish in a Jewish supermarket. He feels himself becoming what he says he fears most, but he takes a perverse pleasure in it. One day, walking past a display of dolls representing stock figures in Jewish folklore, he has a terrible fantasy: “I suddenly found myself hating those figurines. I wanted to herd them into a ditch, even the old bubbe and zaide, and shoot them with a machine gun.

Eventually, Deckle is fired by Howie Shapiro, who gleefully admits that he has been exploiting the younger man. This provides Deckle with the incentive for an explosion of anti-Semitism. He yells at Shapiro and later curses a young Hasid who is trying to change a flat tire. In the aftermath of his rage he regrets what he has done and thinks of offering to help the man with his tire; even then, however, he is indulging in the kind of romantic distortion that characterized his outlook at the start of the novel; he has apparently learned nothing.

It is a tribute to the skill of Edward Allen that Deckle is a plausible character and not, until the end, a...

(The entire section is 1988 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Booklist. LXXXV, January 15, 1989, p. 834.

The Christian Science Monitor April 24, 1989, p. 13.

Kansas City Star January 22, 1989, p. 1H.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 15, 1989, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. February 12, 1989, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, November 25, 1988, p. 55.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, March 5, 1989, p. 6.