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The Lookback Window

A Novel



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About The Book

New York Times Editors’ Choice
Debutiful Best Book of the Year
One of Crimereads Best Crime Novels of 2023
“Hertz has managed to tell a story of queer healing with all the narrative force of a thriller and the searing fury of an indictment.” —The New York Times Book Review

A fearless debut novel of resilience, transcendence, and the elusive promise of justice.

Growing up in suburban New York, Dylan lived through the unfathomable: three years as a victim of sex trafficking at the hands of Vincent, a troubled young man who promised to marry Dylan when he turned eighteen. Years later—long after a police investigation that went nowhere, and after the statute of limitations for the crimes perpetrated against him have run out—the long shadow of Dylan’s trauma still looms over the fragile life in the city he’s managed to build with his fiancé, Moans, who knows little of Dylan’s past. His continued existence depends upon an all-important mantra: To survive, you live through it, but never look back.

Then a groundbreaking new law—the Child Victims Act—opens a new way foreword: a one-year window during which Dylan can sue his abusers. But for someone who was trafficked as a child, does money represent justice—does his pain have a price? As Dylan is forced to look back at what happened to him and try to make sense of his past, he begins to explore a drug and sex-fueled world of bathhouses, clubs, and strangers’ apartments, only to emerge, barely alive, with a new clarity of purpose: a righteous determination to gaze, unflinching, upon the brutal men whose faces have haunted him for a decade, and to extract justice on his own terms.

“Hertz writes with a powerful blend of publicly experienced scene and deeply private interiority...[he] expertly presents both the rapturous façade of post-closet gay life and the cracks in its hastily constructed foundation,” (Slant). Hertz’s debut is “cathartic and revelatory…[and] a gritty recovery story that packs a punch” (The Bay Area Reporter). It offers a startling glimpse at the unraveling of trauma—and the light that peeks, faintly, and often in surprising ways, from the other side of the window.


Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
I escaped to a resort of extraordinary beauty. This way when the news stories appeared, I’d be in such an otherworldly place I could act like I had only been dreaming. I pitched it as a vacation to Moans, a way to get away before our impending wedding. I showed him the site for The Monarchs, a luxurious oceanfront hotel in Florida, and we booked a room. Before we departed, I took a sedative to ease the journey, and I returned to consciousness outside the wooden gates.

Scores of palm trees concealed a pool, two hot tubs, and dozens of naked men. The owner stood with his hands on his hips and surveyed his territory, telling us that he had planted these trees forty years ago; he hadn’t expected the foliage to grow so wildly, but with coastal life came onslaughts of rain and all that sustenance had shifted the foundations.

“Nothing can prevent the course of nature,” he said, so I took off my clothes and wandered the property until I found a spot in the shade to be alone.

The world felt very far away. No matter how hard I studied the jacaranda petals, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t completely exist. I placed my feet on the hot stone patio and searched for three red items: the second hand of the hot tub clock, the limp resort flag, the rusty fractured stones lifting from the earth.

Sweat dragged down my chest as I followed a blue hummingbird to a feeder.

“Would you like a bottle of water?” a pool boy asked, watching me lean over the railing into the trees. “You don’t have to drink like the birds.”

We would stay for a week.

We kept to ourselves at first and spent afternoons by the pool, reading and lifting our sunglasses to flick our eyes at certain men’s conversations, or when, despite the casual nudity, a man seemed particularly naked, even if he wore briefs or a cap. Moans belonged to that category. He wore navy trunks.

Piercings, tattoos, the way men walked up the pool steps, reaching for a towel before it was within their grasp: all contributed to a taxonomy. They were uninhibited, curious but ashamed, and some of them introduced themselves as Nudists while touching their chests as a priest might grasp his cross. Among them were men who had been denied what they wanted for half a century, men so old they felt unseen. Some questioned if they could be desired. Others knew. One idiot in his fifties flopped around on a floating pool chair, attempting to use his dick like bait and tackle.

Moans’ thirty-four to my twenty-seven, and I was covered in tattoos and silent—the men even commented on this, like you’re a quiet one, after they’d tried to get the meaning out of certain ink. I offered nothing. Mostly I kept to my novels.

I woke the second afternoon on a lounge chair to a pool boy handing out Popsicles on a silver platter, unwrapping the plastic to tease the guests with a purple tip. What simplicity, what luxury. I asked for a newspaper. There was the story of a man who had just taken his life after what happened to him as a child, his wife crying and screaming on the steps of a courthouse. A quote from a lawyer about the flood of cases to come. That was enough for me.

The third afternoon, I checked the closet and discovered a sampling of adult films above the safe. Skin flicks. Warped DVD cases, the plastic lifting and torn. They were dated, and I loved the anachronism. I held one in the air and said to Moans, “I honestly wouldn’t know how to use this.”

“You grew up with cassettes and VHS.”

“I haven’t used one in years.” I opened the case and held the disc upside down, where my breath caught each scratch along its mirrored surface. We were naked, otherwise I would have wiped it off on my shirt. “Blow on it for luck?”

Moans pulled my wrist to his face and exhaled. He smelled like vodka, and my hair stood on end. I kneeled in front of the DVD player and pressed the Eject button. A tray slid out. I put the DVD in the slot and pushed it inside. The box gently whirred, and the blue screen switched to black. I really hadn’t seen machinery like this in years. Nobody tells you that you will outgrow your own life as you live it. I didn’t know how to say this exactly to Moans, so as I kneeled before him I said, “The world ends in a thousand ways.”

Moans laughed and ran his finger along my chin, as if I were just talking drunk.

I sat on the floral quilt and waited for the show. Moans sat right behind me, his knees grazing my back. The title screen gave us options: Arabian Nights, Treasure Island, Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth. I chose the last one, pressing the sticky remote twice.

“Why that one?” Moans asked.

“I can figure out all the others.”

At first, on the small grainy television, a middle-aged man and a guy around my age receive a secret letter describing the entrance to a remarkable destination. The scene cuts to the boy carrying a torch through the wilderness, excited and terrified, turning to the older man to ask a question.

“I’ve seen enough.”

“You don’t want to know what happens next?”

Moans lay back on the edge of the bed as I turned onto my knees. I couldn’t tell if he followed me or the film, if the cicadas called from outside the room or the jungle, if the laughter surrounded or came from us, or why as he lifted me onto his lap and covered my mouth with his palm the way he fucked me felt as if it had originated from somebody else. Moans fell asleep after he came inside me. The sun went down. For a while, I lay in the crook of his arm, and then, without disturbing him, I used my phone to light a path to the patio outside, a novel in hand, to read.

A guest from the adjacent room had done the same. He eyed me as I sat beside him, turning off the single overhead light in the umbrella. He untied his robe and let the wind blow it open. We whispered for a while with our novels spread-eagle on the glass table between us. The man had come to the coast to reset his mind to work on a play. As he told me this, he ran his fingers down my thigh. Pleasure is the only true escape, he said. I sensed the playwright believed what he was telling me, even though it sounded like the bullshit artists say before they suck your cock.

I stood.

The playwright drew his finger down my navel to the tattoo. “Paradise?”

“Yes,” I said. “Paradise.”

“How was it?”

“You mean how is it?”

He looked at me the same way I looked at him. He wanted to believe me. The night encased us as the ocean breathed on our necks. We could hear the dying parties, and we kissed as a breeze guided my lips to his. I put my fingers in his hair and felt my dick hit the back of his throat. He stayed there, his core contracting, trying to be quiet as he choked and slobbered and worked until he retched. At the sound, a light turned on in the window above him. I watched a man lower his shaved head into a running sink. When he stood, water dripped from him like a melted silver crown. The man opened the window, saying, “I see you’ve met my husband.”

With teary eyes, the playwright said, “We lost our youth.”

“Where’d it go?”

“It was here until you arrived, and now the mosquitos are taking it from you as we speak.”

“They don’t bite me.”

Now, the playwright became sad, as if I hadn’t reached the age to stop believing my own lies.

“Who are you?” the husband asked.

“A neighbor,” I said.

“Our neighbor without a name,” the playwright said. The husband opened the patio door and stepped out fully clothed. We drank, they smoked, and neither kissed the other. They wanted me to spend the night, but I felt my time with them was over. I’d forgotten my key and had to climb through the open window and slipped into bed with Moans. He draped his arm over me and asked where I had been. I hesitated. He briefly opened his eyes and said, “You always look like you’re gonna say something, but you never do.” Within moments, he was asleep again, and I was alone as the birds began to sing.

At dawn, I had a cup of coffee by the pool. I waited for the New York Times, checking to see if more stories of the men were printed. A doctor who cried in the break room spoke about what happened to him as an Eagle Scout, how he learned what he could achieve under extraordinary pressure. A man whose grandmother used to creep down the stairs when everyone else in the house slept. A woman who never knew what had happened to her was haunted by nightmares. I could hardly admit to myself that this was why I was here. As the ink paper bled over my fingers, the guests drifted across the pool on neon floats. They crumpled their speedos and tossed them to the deck. I felt my skin start to burn. This was an invitation to get off the chair and spray sunscreen over my body, feel the spritz on my neck and my boyfriend’s hands on my back, or even a stranger’s, but the world in front of me fell flat. The more my skin burned, the less capable I became of disrupting the moment. The drifting strangers slowed. The wind died down. The sky was as blue as any other perfect conspiracy.

For years, I wondered if I was alive. I lived in the alleged world. I thirsted and hungered for and craved other people, who recognized I was there, but every now and then, often without notice, I disappeared deep into my body. I would enter a scene just like this, so cured of my own presence, with this heart buried deep inside the moment, that I could have been erased from it completely. Even light pain, the bright tight sensation spreading across my body, lifted right off my skin, disposed of as easily as clothing. I could dip my feet in the sparkling pool, lodge my head in the Atlantic, ride a stranger in the moonlight with his husband’s hands guiding my lips to his lap, and still encounter a fundamental division.

I had been just a lonely kid looking for connection when I received a blinking message from a man on a site that no longer exists. He liked the way I looked, flashy and bright from holding up a camera to a thin mirror in my bedroom. I answered. I went to his house in a low end-of-summer fog, and he lifted a Zippo flame to a grape Swisher, exactly how he’d been taught when he was my age. He was adopted, and I was too, and I wondered if we could have been related. He told me that maybe he was a brother I never met and kissed me. We had what I thought was awkward teenage sex—blood the symptom of inexperience, pain the way of life. He was six inches taller than me, had a big dick, and kept a black Nikon near the bed that he used to take my picture. I had hair that swooped over my face, lips that pressed against my braces. He would kiss me full of smoke and tell me to name what I hated about being alive. He’d tell me stories of everything he’d done at my age. He posted the pictures he took of me online, pressed pills into my mouth, and found men who wanted to pay for a gray-eyed boy. I believed he was showing me the world at its truest, full of fire and longing, secrets and locked doors, and for years, despite what happened to me and the threats he made, I lied to keep him safe. I didn’t know any better.

I was still in the initial phase of recovery. I didn’t yet have the words for what happened to me. And years after just know that when I vanished, nothing could reach me. No glass pipe, no bloody punch could bring me back. I made myself invulnerable to physical pain. I tatted my throat and fingers and spine. Whatever strip of flesh a tattoo artist warned would hurt the most, I donated to their needles. I taught myself to feel nothing. With their hands on my throat, the artists wanted to know how I never flinched while a needle punctured thin veils of skin.

“Practice,” I always said.

A clock lorded over the hot tub in the dead center of the resort. Beside it, there was a manual calendar. Nothing much happened there, but I liked to watch the staff remove the days of the week. You felt like the Fates were at work, or at least I did, drunk and high, high and drunk. We’d been there for four days when a pool boy I hadn’t seen before slipped a Tuesday into his waistband. The pool boy asked me if I wanted a newspaper, which I accepted.

I held the New York Times on my lap, not quite ready to open it, my sweat dampening the paper until the ink bled over my dick and thighs. I needed to read the pages before I’d ruin them, but I knew the news could ruin me. So I waited. People splashed in the pool and sprayed sunscreen around me. The men lined up on blue lounge chairs, trying to position themselves for the best lot of sunlight as the shade retreated into the trees behind us. The man beside me had a face temporarily preserved in time, and to dismiss the chance of him talking to me I finally opened the paper.

In the Opinion section, a writer debated the law I was waiting for news on: the Child Victims Act. The law extended the statute of limitations for child victims of sexual assault. Victims used to only get five years after they turned eighteen to report the assault. Once they turned twenty-three, their case died. Most people didn’t report. Even if they finally came to terms with what happened, it took years longer than this. That was what happened to me. I had always suspected that no one cared what happened to boys anyway. Since then, I had spent my energy on ensuring I never thought about what happened. I did everything I possibly could to escape. Because I didn’t know how to live with it, and I didn’t want to live in a world that was cool with letting that violence go unpunished.

The Child Victims Act permanently extended the statute of limitations for fresh child victims only. If you were like me, and the statute had been four years expired, there was a special provision. A lookback window, they called it, starting August 14, where I would have a one-year period to decide whether to bring a case. Once that year ended, my case would be permanently closed again. It wasn’t a criminal case. This would be purely the chance at a civil lawsuit. Money. Even though I didn’t want money for what happened, I kept having brief visions of justice, and maybe even a life of it. Maybe. The longer time passes, the less evidence exists. The more my memories warp. I knew all this was true. I knew the effects of what happened to me grew with time, but my recollection faded. I imagined all the men I knew who had been assaulted as kids shedding their lives of hiding, stepping out of the routine of survival to bang on the court doors. I dreamed of this freedom with equal parts desire and dread. When I tried to think about what happened, I needed to get high or get fucked, or let rage and abandonment consume my whole life.

The pool boy came over with a pot of iced coffee and martini glasses. He poured coffee into the glass and dropped a crushed blue pill in it.

“What is it?” I asked.

“A Fort Lauderdale Brew.” He stirred the cocktail. “You look like you need it.”

“What’ll it do?”

“Make you feel good,” he said, winking, as I drank mine, and he poured another for the next guy. I relaxed. I dropped the paper and waded into the pool. All the ink washed off. I wrapped my legs around someone and floated on the water as he ran his fingers over my body. I drifted between guys. The clouds swept across the sky. I kissed a few people, returned to my chair with a towel pulled over my body, and woke up during happy hour, when everybody was dressed in dinner clothes, and I was sprawled naked in the cool dusk. The playwright was above me, wiping drool from my face with the towel. He told me not to worry, the pool boys sprayed sunscreen on me while I slept. He told me that I had been having obviously good dreams, the towel falling and rising over my cock. I stood up and stretched, looking for Moans, when an iguana fell from a palm tree and somebody swept the frozen lizard into the bushes with his feet.

“Have you seen my boyfriend?” I asked the playwright, and he pointed at the gym. I ran to Moans, who had been wanting to see an iguana, but we hadn’t yet come across one. He was running on the rickety treadmill. The loose belt forced him to speed up randomly. He was grinning.

“What?” Moans asked, darting theatrically.

“Iguanas are falling from the trees.”

Moans jumped off the treadmill and we ran back to the pool, where the men continued dancing and laughing and drinking. We looked into the palm trees. Nothing collapsed.

“I have the worst timing,” Moans said, grabbing a bag of chips and a seltzer from the table. “Why are you the only one naked?”

“I had a weird coffee.”

Moans squinted at me like I was insane. He pressed his fingers into my sunburn and watched the white impression fade. The pink lights made it look worse. Awful music played over the speakers. We had a month until our wedding. However, we already wore our wedding rings since we couldn’t afford engagement rings and everyone kept asking when we had gotten married. We didn’t know better. Young love.

I walked over to the chair and grabbed the wet paper. The pages were lost words. I crumpled up what I hadn’t been able to read. Moans took it from my hands and threw the paper away. I had a temporary urge to find another paper, but I was being swept away on the Fort Lauderdale Brew. Stars broke through the sky. I followed the moon. I tried to forget about everything. To survive, you lived through it, but you never looked back. I didn’t want to throw away my relationship, my friends, my whole life, and I was afraid that’s what the lookback window would bring, but I knew if I didn’t try I would simply kill myself. So I quietly waited for the stories of what would happen when the law went into effect, and maybe, if I were lucky, a glimpse of my future would come with it.

About The Author

Photo by Sam Lee

Kyle Dillon Hertz is the author of The Lookback Window, a New York Times Editors’ Choice. His work can be found in Esquire, Freemans, Time, and more. He received his MFA from NYU and a residency from Yaddo. He teaches at The New School. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 1, 2023)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668005873

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Raves and Reviews

**A PW Writer to Watch**
Electric Literature: “The Most Anticipated LGBTQ+ Books for Summer 2023”
New York Times Editors’ Choice
One of Vanity Fair's "20 Favorite Books of 2023
Debutiful Best Book of the Year
One of CrimeReads' Best Crime Novels of 2023

"Hertz has managed to tell a story of queer healing with all the narrative force of a thriller and the searing fury of an indictment. It’s an achievement of language, of style, in which the process of finding one’s way back to the world is considered at least in part as an act of learning to 'speak the unspeakable.' It’s a matter, Hertz seems to say, of finding the right words....At his best, Hertz sheds the trappings of traditional realism, adopting instead a swerving, almost psychedelic style that mirrors the abrupt and mercurial perceptions of a turbulent mind. He follows the worthy example of writers like Jean Rhys, Gary Indiana and Denis Johnson."
—The New York Times Book Review

"At turns poetic and chilling—and wholly, unapologetically queer—The Lookback brutally told. I had to look away, put the book down, take a deep breath often. But it proved impossible to ever stay away from."—Tyler Breitfeller, Vanity Fair

"[The Lookback Window is] a herald of disruption, transcendence, and resilience, and its momentum is unlikely to halt anytime soon."BOMB

"Hertz writes with a powerful blend of publicly experienced scene and deeply private interiority...[he] expertly presents both the rapturous façade of post-closet gay life and the cracks in its hastily constructed foundation."Slant Magazine

"Cathartic and revelatory, this is a gritty recovery story that packs a punch."Bay Area Reporter

“Hertz’s haunting debut gazes unwaveringly into the darkness—and unexpected light—of memory."
—Electric Literature

"The prose is remarkable, alternating from lush sensuality to unsparing brutality to quick cutting asides. This marks the arrival of a vital new talent."
—Publishers Weekly

“A promising debut seeking storytelling to match the trauma it evokes.”

“This forceful, necessary novel…depicts the often silent suffering and unfathomable effects of sexual abuse. Readers of Garth Greenwell or Eimear McBride will find it well worth diving into.”
—Library Journal

"The Lookback Window will shake you to your core... Kyle Dillon Hertz’s phenomenal prose is tender and powerful and provides moments of beauty and hope even in the darkest and more harrowing moments."

“…in its sensitive portrayal of the profoundly social nature of recovery and justice, The Lookback Window asks us to consider in all its complexity the question of how we might be able to make a better world together.”
—Interview Magazine

“Kyle Dillon Hertz’s searing debut novel puts a spotlight on male sexual abuse and a path toward healing…The Lookback Window powerfully explores the lasting effects of childhood trauma.”

"Once in a while a book rattles your soul and you know it will stay with you forever. This is a stunner."—Steven Rowley, bestselling author of The Guncle

The Lookback Window is a beautiful and heartbreaking tour de force. Hertz writes vengeance as salvation, refusal as a reclamation of humanity.”
—Raven Leilani, New York Times bestselling author of Luster

"The Lookback Window shines light in the darkest places—sometimes reflecting off the surface of a pool, other times off the blade of a knife, always gleaming. With elegant prose and propulsive energy, Hertz generates power by refusing to look away. The result is luminous."
—Tess Gunty, winner of the National Book Award for The Rabbit Hutch

"Kyle Dillon Hertz's The Lookback Window is fearless, by which I mean vulnerable. Sentence by sentence, it moves along with a fierce and psychedelic honesty reminiscent of Joan Didion's best work. I'm amazed by how much beauty and humor Hertz is able to mine from the most harrowing of circumstances. There's a multi-level testimony—and indictment—here for those brave enough to face it. The Lookback Window is audacious, scandalous, and startling in ways that can only be properly conveyed by a pen as careful and compassionate as Hertz's. A gutsy, unflinching debut."
—Robert Jones, Jr., author of The New York Times bestseller, The Prophets, a finalist National Book Award

"Exceptional and electrifying, Kyle Dillon Hertz's The Lookback Window defies, challenges and escapes the/all rules, becoming an utterly unique, riveting and sensational work of fiction. A triumph, a masterful exploration of forgiving and forgetting—of the fight for what is right, and yours."
—Pajtim Statovci, author of National Book Award finalist Crossing

The Lookback Window is an unforgettable debut, as beautiful as it is brutal. Kyle Dillon Hertz's writing is immediate, unvarnished, and authentic, and his novel investigates all that is fragile and unbreakable in the human psyche. This is a powerful book that kept me up at night. It won't soon let go of me.”
—Edan Lepucki, author of the New York Times bestseller California

“Raw and urgent, The Lookback Window dares us to follow in its search for justice—and what lies beyond. Kyle Dillon Hertz has written an uncompromising journey. An incredibly moving one, too.”
—Zak Salih, author of Let’s Get Back to the Party

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