Glad Men from Happy Boys ... or Else: A Review of Thomas Tryon's THE NIGHT OF THE MOONBOW
Updated: Mar 14, 2020
Some things in life make absolutely no sense. That Thomas Tryon isn’t a household name is one of them. I’m too young to know what it was like to watch him transition from film actor to man of letters, but it must have been deeply satisfying for him to make the transition as admirably as he did. There had to be doubters. It’s easy to imagine the cynicism that might have accompanied the shift. Maybe I would have been a bit skeptical myself.
The Night of the Moonbow should have been enough to put such concerns to bed, for those not already convinced by Tryon's previous books, such as The Other and Harvest Home. It is one of the finest books I remember reading in my teenage years. I recently read it again, and it was a rare pleasure. Not only did the novel live up to every one of my fondest memories. It surpassed them all.
Welcome to Camp Friend-Indeed, which proudly claims to make “Glad Men from Happy Boys.” What the slogan leaves out, of course, is what can be expected of not-so-happy boys who arrive at the Connecticut summer camp several years before the United States would enter the fray of World War II. The paperback that was my first encounter with Moonbow was marketed as a horror novel, right down to the garish raised lettering on the front cover and the hyperbole on the back. But this is no horror novel.
Except that it is—kind of. The term “psychological horror” can get us out of a lot of tight squeezes, so maybe that’s the file drawer I’ll slip Moonbow into for now. Still, there is a sense that if The Night of the Moonbow can be called a horror novel, damn near anything can. Really it’s a novel about friendship, adolescence, courage, and trauma—though of course a horror novel can be about all of those things as well. Moonbow also happens to be beautifully written, with characters so lovingly wrought it’s easy to feel that you’re moving among them as you follow them from cabin to lodge to “haunted” house to dining hall to campfire to lake (Tryon’s map at the beginning of the book only intensifies this effect). I suppose that’s what all the best books do, put you smack dab in the action, where you can live and breathe the setting right along with the characters. But I feel that the boys at Camp Friend-Indeed gather in a bit closer than the characters of many books. You can almost tousle their hair as they run past, and feel the breeze that stirs in their wake. You certainly wish you could step in to take corrective action on more than one occasion.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that The Night of the Moonbow has powerful magic coursing through its pages, like all great books. I’ve done a bit of literary prestidigitation myself, and part of the process remains as mysterious to me as ever. The closest I’ve come to unraveling its secrets is to understand that you have to open yourself up to the magic. At least that way, if it does come, it will have a way in. And of course some tricks are easier to pull off than others. Plenty of writers can separate the occasional Chinese linking rings or make a dove disappear behind a handkerchief, but the illusion in Moonbow is more prodigious than that. In it, Thomas Tryon levitates the so-called real world so you can see the one beneath it. Some of what you see there is beautiful, while some of it is, yes, horrifying. All of it feels true.
Abracadabra, ladies and gentlemen. That’s a neat trick.