Last Night in Brighton
- By Massoud Hayoun
- Darf Publishers
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by Colin Asher
- December 29, 2022
At loose ends, a gay Arab Jew seeks, well, something in Brooklyn.
Unbelievable things transpire in Massoud Hayoun’s Last Night in Brighton. A character transitions genders while traveling through time, castration via hypnosis is discussed at length, and, maybe most incredulously, trustworthy civil servants reliably clear the Brighton and Coney Island beaches at dusk to prevent people from cavorting on the sand. But nothing in its pages reads as fantastically as the author’s claim, announced in the book’s promotional materials and echoed on his Twitter account, that he intends never to write another novel.
Brighton is Hayoun’s third book and second novel. It follows Building 46, released earlier this year. Twinned, his novels comprise the Ghorba Ghost Story Series. Both follow protagonists named Sam Saadoun, but they are distinct characters. One is Egyptian, the other Algerian. One is closeted, the other very much not. One was raised on the East Coast of the United States, the other on the West. One is dysthymic and prickly, the other skittish and perilously curious. They share some traits, though. Each is Jewish and Arab, lonesome and unmoored, and both are searching — through inquiry, and even across decades, continents, and genders — for companionship and a sense belonging.
Identity, acceptance, psychological differentiation — a writer could spend several careers mining those themes. Hayoun began that process with his first book, When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History, a memoir. But he clearly enjoys the leeway fiction provides. He has an affinity for the fantastical and serendipitous, so it’s hard to imagine that he’s really finished as a novelist.
Brighton’s themes are weighty fare, but it’s not a joyless text. There are bits that read like satire: jeremiads against psychotherapy and overwrought proclamations (“I was paying…for involving myself too deeply in humanity”). And there’s a playful feel to the book, beginning with its title. The story is set partly in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. But should the reader expect to learn about the prior night or a final night? When a character named Brighton appears and a flirtation commences, a third possibility seems likely. Which will it be? Hayoun allows the question to linger.
Sam Saadoun, Brighton’s protagonist, was raised in America by an Egyptian grandfather. He is a Jew whose people emigrated from an Arab country and a gay man who never revealed himself to his family when he could have. He exists in a purgatory of sorts, truly at home nowhere, and he plans to remove his libido using hypnotherapy. With lust removed from the equation, he believes, he’ll be able to return to Egypt and find the familial feeling he craves. Sex, he rationalizes, is a meager satisfaction — a well-negotiated and transactional business, for the most part — and one worth sacrificing.
The author has worked as a journalist, which is evident here. Hayoun’s sentences are direct and cleanly composed, and he has a talent for telegraphing his characters’ emotional states through the inclusion of the anecdotes and atmospheric details reporters often rely upon. Sam Saadoun’s isolation is a fact stated directly many times, but more affectingly, it is suggested. In a restaurant, he smashes falafel in his hands and shoves it in his mouth to shock other diners. And once, he wades into the Atlantic alone and looks toward shore:
“I stood in the ocean, up to my knees in murky, sudsy waves, and I felt the half-hearted clemency of low-tide rush over me. I liked to see the periwinkle of that hour against the grey brick backdrop of the austere Soviet-style flat blocks.”
On the eve of his planned hypnotherapy session, Sam meets Brighton, who goes by Tony. They meet cute and then engage in a courtship that plays out in Brighton Beach and Coney Island as they wander through a supermarket, across the sand, and onto the Wonder Wheel. All the while, Tony tries to convince Sam to forego the next day’s procedure.
His arguments are tactfully advanced, logical. Killing your sex drive won’t bring you closer to your deceased family. You deserve to live and to feel content as you are, Tony says. But he misses the point. History, religion, and patrimony are not subjects governed by logic, and Sam rejects Tony’s premise out of hand. The world does not owe him, or anyone else, anything, he claims. “Happiness is for weightless people.”
Sam and Tony argue through the night as they try, and fail, to find a place where they can have sex. The thread of their debate ties the book together, each of them giving voice to an aspect of Sam’s psyche. The questions they raise have no answers and, appropriately, neither side concedes. The end of their shared night is a sorrowful business, but the following day, Sam alters his plans. He eschews the psychic castration — tacitly accepting Tony’s argument — and returns to Egypt by traveling into the past, making literal his metaphorical desire.
The first book in the Ghorba Ghost Story Series, Building 46, concluded with unrequited love and broken friendship. But Brighton, for all its fatalistic talk and persistent sense of ennui, ends on a hopeful note. Its version of Sam Saadoun accepts that he might be deserving of happiness and makes peace, at least tentatively, with the past. His conflicts remain unresolved but they have become less pronounced. It’s a fittingly open-ended conclusion to a series of books which, together, read like the beginning of a promising novelist’s career, not its conclusion.
Colin Asher is the author of Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren and the forthcoming The Midnight Special: Policing, Prisons, and American Popular Music, both from W.W. Norton.