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Stephen Schneck: The Nightclerk

Though long since out of print, this is definitely a cult novel, which has had its supporters over the years. It is in the tradition of writers like William Burroughs and John Kennedy Toole. Its influences are not the great writers but cheap US paperbacks, often of an erotic nature, and its characters are larger than life. Its setting – the Travelers Hotel in San Francisco, an entire city block – could be seen as one of those symbols of life, where all sorts of characters meet. It used to be a hotel for travelling salesmen, as the name implies, but they have now generally gone to the motels and the hotel is left to transients, hookers and those wanting anonymous sex or parties. The hotel, at least at night, when this book is set, is presided by the great J Spenser Blight. We are told on many occasions how much he weighs but, each time, the figure given is different. He seems to weigh at least 600 pounds (close to 45 stone), which is rather large. He certainly impresses the clients. Blight spends his time, when not helping guests, arguing with the police or dealing with (and ignoring phone calls), reading cheap erotic novels and cutting pictures out of magazines. He also sees ghosts and/or hears voices. (A reputable Nightclerk has every right to his voices.) There is even a suggestion that he may have been involved in various sexual assaults. Several women have complained of being assaulted by a very large man. These assaults all seem to take place on Wednesdays, which is Blight’s night off. Nothing, however, is proven.

We learn early on the sort of person that comes to the hotel. There are people coming for an hour or two of passion, those coming to party, the old and infirm, even people coming to kill themselves, often found days later by the cleaning staff who do not check every room every day. Indeed, Blight’s name is frequently to be found on death reports, as it is he who reports these deaths to the authorities. Though a man not be trifled with, he can show a sympathetic side, helping, for example, an ageing prostitute, Kandy, find work. Sadly, it does not work out for her. Apart from helping the guests, reading erotic novels and cutting out pictures, we learn what else he does.

A Nightclerk’s functions include directing each guest to his box; making certain that the maids have changed the sand, washed the bedsprings, wiped off the fingerprints. That sort of thing. He is expected to protect Smith from Jones, the fourth floor from the fifth, the anonymity of those falsely registered, as well as the de facto autonomy of their enemies, bad dreams, the social diseases and beggars from the Bi-Sex Squad. Of course, a Nightclerk can only do his best, and no one should be very surprised if he loses a few guests per shift.

Surprisingly, Blight is married. His wife is Katy, a very sexy woman and daughter of a rich man, who has sexually abused his daughter. She had been in and out of mental institutions since she was twelve, and a registered sex offender since her fifteenth birthday. Blight first sees her on a gurney in an institution and is immediately attracted to her. It takes him a while to find out who she is and where she is but, when he does, they are soon engaged in what Katy calls passing the ghost. He is then determined to save her. He gets her out and, with a friend in the Bureau of Records, manages to have all records expunged.

Much of the book tells the tale of how Blight ended up at the hotel. After their marriage, they enjoy Katy’s riches, doing the Grand Tour and travelling round the world on her yacht (Paris was disappointing, There were only five whores in the entire city.). But things go wrong. It turns out that she has all her money invested in a Hollywood film company and when the film company goes bust, so does she. But Katy still looks sixteen – or younger – and Blight is able to pimp her to men who want what they think is a fifteen-year old. Schneck clearly liked this idea as a considerable amount of the book si taken up with the details, including Blight’s negotiations with the men, some of whom, of course, are the high and mighty but some of whom are prepared to spend all their money on a romp with Katy. However, while their men are happy to continue in this way, their wives are not and it soon all falls apart. Blight, as we know, ends up in the Travelers Hotel as a night clerk.

This novel is great fun, even if Schneck does go somewhat overboard on the sexual romps. It is clear to see why it has become a cult novel. Blight is a wonderful character, as fat men have sometimes been in literature and cinema. It would have been nice to have more of the novel set in the hotel, with its voices and ghosts and strange characters, all presided over by J Spenser Blight, a man not afraid of the police nor the stranger guests, a man who could be abrupt and harsh but had a certain sympathy both for the downtrodden and eager but broke young lovers and, above all, a man who has become a great character of US literature.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Grove Press