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Sterling Watson’s ‘Night Letter’ delivers a dark, tense tale

A teenager returns to the Panhandle to try to understand his violent past and the woman who haunts him.
Sterling Watson's new novel is "Night Letter."
Sterling Watson's new novel is "Night Letter." [ Akashic Books ]
Published Jan. 5

Like the heroes (or antiheroes) of many noir novels, Travis Hollister is a hopeless romantic at heart. But you might not want to get a valentine from him.

The reader meets 18-year-old Travis as he’s about to be released after six years in a reform school in Nebraska. In his first-person narration, he’s open about a lot of things, but elusive about the exact nature of the violent crimes that put him in what he calls the “warehouse for unclaimed boys.”

He’s clear about one thing, though: his obsession with a woman named Delia. She’s his aunt, his father’s younger sister. When he was 12 and Delia was 16, she helped him through a difficult time. But those crimes he’s vague about have something to do with her, and his feelings for her are not exactly familial.

Revealing the past and unfolding its fateful effects on the present are the twin engines that drive “Night Letter,” Sterling Watson’s compelling new novel. Watson retired after many years as director of the creative writing program at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, where he also co-founded the Writers in Paradise conference with one of his former students, acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Dennis Lehane.

Related: Read a review of Sterling Watson's novel "The Committee."

“Night Letter” follows Travis back to the Florida Panhandle, where his father and Delia still live, although he hasn’t heard from them in years. It’s the mid-1960s; Lyndon Johnson is president, the Vietnam War is heating up, and it’s even more true than now that, despite geography, the northern part of Florida is the most Southern, with all the social and racial hierarchies that implies.

Travis arrives in Panama City with next to no money. He rents a roach-infested cabin at a motel run by a sad-sack woman he calls the Widow. He gets a job as a busboy at Big Sam’s, a seafood restaurant bustling with tourists, where he’s befriended by the cook, Emil, an imposing Black man.

And eventually, it happens. Delia appears — Travis recognizes her across the room in an instant by just “a slant of the head up and to the side, tossing a wave of hair” — having dinner at Big Sam’s with her husband, Temp Tarleton, a local lawyer and politician. We see that the boy who’s been working hard to make a new life for himself is a mask; Travis’ reaction is not to approach Delia and declare he’s back, but to sneak into the Tarleton house that night and watch her sleeping.

Soon Travis’ father finds out he’s back and comes looking for him, trying to reestablish a relationship. Travis is suspicious but curious — his father is now a successful lawyer and real estate developer. A World War II vet, Lloyd Hollister long ago divorced Travis’ mother, a Japanese war bride; his second wife is the kind but status-conscious Eleanor.

Travis also becomes entangled with Dawnell Briscoe. She’s a pretty girl with honey-colored hair a couple of years younger than him, but, he tells us, “She smokes like a thirty-year-old woman sitting on a barstool waiting for her future to walk in the door in a Palm Beach suit.” A motherless kid with a drunken daddy and a shiftless brother, she’s trouble waiting to happen — but Travis’ feelings for her are a surprise.

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Watson crafts the plot of “Night Letter” skillfully, keeping the tension between Travis’ past and present tight. Key to that tension is the narrative voice, which draws us into Travis’ struggle to understand his obsession and the danger it can unleash.

Memory, he discovers, is a slippery thing, and what emerges from the past has shocking reverberations in the present, and into the future.

Meet the author

Tombolo Books will host Sterling Watson’s launch of “Night Letter,” in conversation with Times book editor Colette Bancroft, at 7 p.m. Jan. 10 at Coastal Creative, 2201 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Tickets $28.95 for one copy of the book and one admission, or $36 for one copy of the book and two admissions, at tombolobooks.com/events.

Watson will read from and sign “Night Letter” as part of the Writers in Paradise evening reading series at 7 p.m. Jan. 19 in Miller Auditorium, Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free; information at writersinparadise.com/readings/.