Night Moves is a mood piece, and its subjects are friendship, Chicago, and discovery; youth is an ineffable feeling author Jessica Hopper tries to pin down. It’s a stylized kind of a diary, beginning in 2004, about Hopper hanging out with her friends when she was “not yet a professional writer but mapped that dream often.”
Hopper moved from L.A. to Chicago in 1997, when she was twenty-one. The book opens with a map of her Wicker Park neighborhood with a key identifying all the important places in her personal mythology—and a disclaimer: while some of the names have been changed, “[t]he quantities and locations of people doing drugs are entirely accurate down to the gram.” Despite this gritty establishment of her street cred, ice water turns out to be Hopper’s drink of choice, and what follows is a pretty innocent account of riding bikes, going to parties, hanging out in parking lots, smoking, thawing frozen pipes with hair dryers during endless winters in run-down houses, dancing, and noticing the world around her changing.
The book is set in the days of Craigslist’s “Missed Connections,” in the years immediately following the attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center. Hopper finds herself craving “[p]oems and magical realism,” writing that “[n]ormal books could not hold me because the context seemed to have shifted and I wanted radical love, peace, disgust, outrage, and effluvial words for it.” Chicago is gentrifying, and Hopper, dazzled and sometimes dismayed by a new generation (“They told me stories I lived a decade ago, and it was depressing”) realizes she’s getting older. She returns to L.A. a few times, but discovers that Chicago is where she belongs. Night Moves is a love letter to that city.
The first piece, “The Night,” shows Hopper watching young men and women on bikes on their way to summer parties. “All the girls with bare shoulders. It must be a great thing to love those girls.” This observation shows that Hopper doesn’t seem to think of herself as one of those girls, or as someone who desires them. It’s a point-of-view that establishes Hopper, from the first, as an outsider.
Not that she doesn’t belong. Hopper seems to run with a pretty big pack. The stories here aren’t accounts of loneliness, isolation, or estrangements. An electric current of youth and possibility energizes Hopper and her friends, but she’s the one who records the jolts.
Yet Hopper seems to experience her most meaningful moments alone. Picking up the local alternative paper with “my first piece in it,” she doesn’t write of sharing the news with anyone, but marveling that “like magic, here, thirteen years after the fact, I am finally living my teenage dream.”
The dedication page has a photo torn from a photo strip and this inscription: “To JR, for teaching me about Chicago and being down for whatever.” JR is the friend Hopper confides in, the one she’s closest to, who houses her extra set of keys. His is a quiet, supportive presence throughout the book, a ballast to the balloon of Hopper’s adventures, a soulful presence who reflects, after seeing a man killed, that “perspective came quick, one night, maybe two. You make peace with death’s swift manners, and it raises you up.”
The dated entries are very short (sometimes one or two pages), each encapsulating a little adventure, and the feelings Hopper had about it, with titles like “Born (Again) in the USA,” “Can’t Be Stopped,” “People Who Died, Died,” “Pony Hair Sandals,” “New Day Rising.” While “There is a Light on My Bike That Never Goes Out” is an obvious nod to the band The Smiths, these could all be song titles. Music is important to Hopper, and the merits of different bands making the scene at the time are often discussed. Vampire Weekend is a big deal; Conor Oberst’s band, Bright Eyes, warrants mixed feelings. Driving with friends, Hopper and her pals listen to Exile in Guyville, “and the boys sang every word, explaining all they came to understand from it.” (Liz Phair, the musician behind that album, is a Wicker Park-native.) Night Moves takes its title from a song by Bob Seger.
Despite its diary-like format, Hopper reveals little of her deeply private feelings. The intimacy is between Hopper and her friends, not between Hopper and the reader. This is partly a result of the book’s structure: the missives act almost as “daily bulletins” without the kind of reflection on them that can only come with time. Hopper’s not looking back on what happened to search for a deeper meaning; she’s creating a feeling of immediacy.
Night Moves seems like it evolved out of a blog and it has what feels like a constructed throwaway, dashed-off quality, carefully pruned to highlight its insights. When a friend’s father dies, Hopper writes“[t]he old people at the service, of course, know how to grieve and what to say, how to say it, to hug and not pat the arm awkwardly, and that you bring a hot dish…there was nothing unknown in their mourning. It was sure, they knew its form and shape. Our table of kid-friends, we were moving like nervous atoms because of what we do not know yet.”
Sometimes the writing seems to mask how much time Hopper has been deeply considering something, as if she didn’t want to be seen as caring as much as she does. When Hopper runs into an old boyfriend (the only mention of a romantic relationship in the book), she writes “I think he thought I was just being vindictive for that time he ruined 1997-2002.”
Physically, Night Moves is a small book (one that could fit in the inside pocket of a jean jacket), with French flaps, perfect for marking your place, although it’s likely you’ll read it quickly. It’s easy and compelling. For all its cool posturing, Night Moves is actually very sweet, and maybe best evoked in an image of Hopper and a friend walking their bikes home late at night, trying to think up an old band’s back catalogue: “Aging loners waxing nerdy in the night light.”