Derek B. Miller: Norwegian by Night, American by Day
Norwegian Noir with JERRY HOLT
“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand that. I been there before.”
— Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The final line of Mark Twain’s Great American Novel, bursting with challenge and possibility, excites me now, just as it did 60-some years ago. How utterly American those words are—how committed to the national myth of starting over, to that hopeless hope Americans cling to, that they might be able to find in geographical place what they have lost in time.
So, imagine how thrilled I was to see this very quote turn up in the many musings of Sheldon Horowitz, the 82-year-old protagonist of Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night (2012), an aged fugitive just as much on the run as 14-year-old Huck ever was.
Sheldon, you see, an American vet of the Korean War, has been displaced to Oslo, Norway, pretty much against his will, to live under the watchful eye of his daughter and son-in-law, who think he’s slipping into dementia in the wake of his wife’s death.
And Sheldon isn’t helping things: he hallucinates freely about the war and mentally time-travels in a manner that Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim would envy.
Even so, Sheldon does not do well with confinement, and the first time he is left alone in the family’s Oslo apartment, opportunity knocks in a particularly grisly fashion, and he slips his surly bonds. The Serbian refugee who lives upstairs has come pounding on his door, her 6-year-old son in tow, begging to be hidden from some Kosovo bad guys who are mysteriously on her trail. Sheldon hides the kid in a closet but cannot save the mother, who is killed. And now Sheldon, who knows an adventure when it comes his way, grabs the little boy, and, in effect, Lights Out for the Territory.
The little boy doesn’t talk—not at all—not even to tell Sheldon his name. So, Sheldon christens him Paul (Bible scholars’ alert: Sheldon’s own son was named Saul, and he died in Vietnam). He then fashions a Viking getup for Paul—basically horns and a large spoon for a sword. The kid likes the costume. He even seems to like being on the run—and that they are, since not only a band of Kosovo thugs but also the Norwegian police, led by the formidable Chief Inspector Sigrid Odegard, are closing in.
Sigrid is the first to realize that Sheldon is no doddering oldster—he is, in fact a treasure trove of the kinds of survival skills a military veteran amasses, and that he is not about to go gentle into anybody’s good night. Sigrid herself, though, is no slouch—and one thing you are likely to think is that she deserves her own book. Guess what—she gets it. Hang on.
Miller favors the semi-omniscient first-person narrative style, and this allows him to bounce from Sheldon to thugs to cops with sometimes dizzying freedom. Miller is a smart, complex writer, and along the way, we learn plenty about Sheldon’s Jewish roots; about his personal guilt regarding his son (Sheldon encouraged him to return to Vietnam for another tour)—and about his old pal Bill, who is now dead, but who, nonetheless, drops in to visit Sheldon at regular intervals.
But Miller’s focus is never far from the action, and by the time all hell converges at that cabin—and it certainly does—you’ll be rooting for this ragtag antihero all the way and already casting the movie in your mind. It’s a damn shame Eli Wallach has left us: he would have nailed this part to the wall.
Derek B. Miller, who comes from Boston but now resides in Oslo, has definitely done his own share of “lighting out for territories.” He has lived In Israel, Hungary, and Switzerland, among other venues, and he has been a senior fellow involved in policy for the United Nations. His academic background (he’s a Georgetown grad) serves him well in his writing, which references everything from classical studies to rock ‘n’ roll, and he does not shy away from hot button issues at all.
All these attributes are on display in Miller’s sort-of sequel to Norwegian by Night, which is entitled American by Day (2018), and, as indicted earlier, its protagonist is Sigrid Odegard, the Norwegian chief inspector from the earlier book.
As the title indicates, this book takes Sigrid to the United States, upstate New York near Saranac Lake, to be precise. It seems that Sigrid’s brother Marcus, who is an adjunct college professor in the United States, has gone missing after sending his and Sigrid’s father a cryptic and seemingly doomed letter.
Sigrid is an insulated soul: attractive but unattached and evidently pretty unlucky in love. Sigrid will be put on a collision course, not only with her fugitive brother but also with a crusty American sheriff named Irving Wylie (emphasis on “wiley”), who thinks that Marcus may be a murderer—one of his professors, an African American woman has jumped or fallen to her death.
Sheriff Irv, as he is called, talks like Andy Griffith but has a graduate degree in divinity, and in that seeming disparity lies his strength: this guy can “aw shucks” criminals into confessing. He and Sigrid form an uneasy alliance with just enough smolder to indicate a mutual and growing sexual attraction. Will it happen? That, along with the book’s twisting plot patterns, will make you turn the pages with great anticipation.
Embedded in those twists and turns is an ongoing discussion about American gun control and, of course, the old question about why Norway has such a low homicide rate and the United States such a high one. For some readers, that is going to slow the narrative thrust a bit, but never fear: Miller is a storyteller, and he is not going to let you down.
American by Day works much more as a detective story than Norwegian by Night did, but the latter book is no less character-driven. It is interesting that Sigrid Odegard will briefly become a fugitive in America, much as Sheldon Horowitz was in Norway—and even more interesting that they employ similar methods on the run.
And speaking of Sheldon—he returns this summer in a prequel entitled How to Find Your Way in the Dark. And, yes—Norwegian by Night has, in fact, been optioned for a movie. It should be a good one.
See also Christine Foster Meloni’s earlier review of Norwegian by Night and American by Day in The Norwegian American, July 26, 2018.
This article originally appeared in the May 21, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.