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Darke by Rick Gekoski

Published in Great Britain in 2017; published by Canongate Books on November 21, 2017

Darke is the kind of novel that starts out being one thing and ends up being something quite different. The ending puts the beginning in perspective by casting the protagonist in a penetrating light that removes him from the shadows and illuminates his interior.

James Darke is a former schoolmaster. Now he has arranged his life so that he will never need to leave his home. He can no longer bear the presence of other people, “even to dismiss them.” He has no use for their opinions or jokes. He is intolerant of any preference that diverges from his own (the notion that some people might prefer green tea to coffee is proof of their stupidity and perhaps their Green Party membership). James has had enough and is ready to say no mas to the world like a defeated fighter. The novel is his journal, the thoughts of a recluse who explains how he came to reject humanity.

James does not limit his disdain to ordinary people. In some of my favorite moments, he savages T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Yeats, “that blubbery piss-artist” Dylan Thomas, “that dreadful gasbag” Kahlil Gibran, and Philip Roth, whose characters “speechify” for paragraphs at a time while always sounding like Philip Roth. James has spent years trying to write a monograph about Dickens, a writer he decides is “slobbery” by the novel’s end. Yet as a teacher, James encouraged his students to read literature with an open mind, to consider multiple viewpoints with humility, to “allow them gracious entrance however strident or discordant some of them may sound,” so that “each of these voices will become a constituent part of who you become, an atom of growing being.” Good advice, but James has come to reject his own counsel, having decided that “nothing assuages the pain of being.” In fact, he hates wisdom, and is engaged in the British project of searching for its antidote.

As much as he fears admitting it, James also suffers from loneliness in his self-imposed isolation. Thus he finds himself discussing Dickens with Bronya, his Bulgarian cleaner, who startles him with insights that had never occurred to him. It seems the old dog is capable of learning new ideas, even if he would prefer not to. But will he repair his self-imposed exile from a pained and loving daughter?

How did James Darke become so dark? Much of his journal recounts his past, introducing the reader to the highs and (mostly) lows of his life. The reason for his morose withdrawal from society eventually becomes clear, and the description of the events leading to that point are intense and painful to read. Knowing how his past has shaped his present allows the reader to understand the emotional overload that underlies James’ escape from the world of the living.

Darke is deft in its transition from light comedy to dark comedy to tragedy. Some of James’ humor might be described as socially incorrect; his rant about female tennis players who grunt when they serve is priceless. James also has strong opinions about what a novel should be; he skips past descriptions of trees and searches for “human content,” characters who are passionate or ironic. Which is very much a description of Darke. This is a novel that closely observes people, not the quality of sunsets or the shimmer of a rainy sky.

The novel’s ending, which explains and addresses James’ rejection of his daughter, is powerful. Rick Gekoski sets aside the jokes in favor of a gut-wrenchingly honest examination of a man who was forced to make an impossible decision and then to find a way to live with its consequences. The ending makes it possible for the reader to reinterpret James. He still might not be likable, but he’s sympathetic, a flawed but caring human who is doing his best to confront adversity even if, in his own words, his best isn’t very good.


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