Confessions from a Dark Wood
by Eric Raymond
Sator Press, 2012
204 pages / $13.00 buy from Sator Press
1. The book begins with a section of “Advance Praise.” Among the quoted, all characters from the story about to unfold, is the deceased father of the author (or co-author, we are told), who gives what is perhaps the first indication that the world you have entered is not only darkly satirical, but propelled forward by something urgent and deeply felt. We may not yet recognize this as the complicated love between father and son, but we catch a glimpse of it and it startles:
“Oh, so you finally have a book. You must be so proud. Congratulations, son. You know, in the afterlife, books are our toilet paper. I’m saying we literally wipe our asses with books. Go figure.”
2. There is little sentimentality here. We meet Nick Bray at his father’s memorial service, which he likens to a church tag sale. He describes what has been left out of the haphazard displays of the artifacts of his father’s life. An empty table, he tells us, “might have stood for all that was omitted from a memorial, i.e. a few decades of filching undergraduate panties, a pyramid of Miller Lite cans, a tape loop of doors slamming around our house, and the amputated legs below the knee, which had shuffled off this mortal coil six years ahead of my father.”
3. At this memorial, a stranger approaches Nick with a potentially lucrative, albeit mysterious job offer, which he dismisses.
4. Back home, after he is fired from his job at an internet porn company where he writes promotional copy, he is forced to assess his situation. He is aimless. He dresses poorly (consider the white Cuban shirt and slip-on shoes he wears to the funeral). He is broke. He reconsiders.
5. One of Nick’s new coworkers is an orangutan. I am not speaking in metaphor. “Shelby” is an advisor to Pontius J. LaBar, CEO, LaBar Partners Limited. He has his own office, of course.
6. Full disclosure: I consider Eric Raymond a friend and fellow traveler although we know each other almost exclusively through twitter. I had coffee with him once at Four Barrel on Valencia. There was a taxidermied moose head that was later stolen. It was nice: the coffee, the moose head. In this book, there is an unflattering portrayal of a Korean adoptee. I am trying not to hold it against him.
7. I am a Korean adoptee.
8. Friend or no, unflattering representations or no, it is difficult not to be drawn into this bizarre world, to be seduced, as Nick himself is, into a surreal landscape of glittering surfaces.
9. After the limousine rides and the custom-made suits; after the commissioned “superfixie,” the apartment overlooking the city, the DuMol Viogner, Nick is well on his way to his new life of airports and minibars in highrise hotels. Expect jargon-laden client meetings and self-annointed brand experts. Expect furious email messages at all hours of the night from the buffoon Pontius. Paranoia. Buffoonery.
10. What do you do when you open the door to the airplane lavatory only to find your dead father waiting for you? If you are Nick Bray, you ask him for advice and then watch as he flushes himself down the toilet.
11. Did I mention that Nick meets a girl? In the waiting room of the porn company from which he is unceremoniously escorted by security, Nick meets a girl, Sadie, whose life ambition is to be the country’s first domestic suicide bomber.
12. If every story is, in fact, a love story, what is it that Nick loves? He loves poetry. And Sadie. He loves his father.
13. And he loves San Francisco: “Praise Indian Summer in San Francisco. Praise bare bodies in Dolores Park, praise the marijuana truffle man winding through the crowd. Praise the bums debating bum politics on the overlook up on 21st. Praise guys cruising on the high lip with the J-Church snakes up the hill….
Being in San Francisco again was like being amongst a crowd divinely pardoned back into the Garden of Eden.”
14. Nick develops a love for poetry. He reads as he travels. He meets one of the poets he has read, Jake Hawkins, working the x-ray machine at airport security. He expresses his surprise to find him here.
He tells him: “I have your book – the new one – in my bag.” And asks: “What are you doing here?”
“I work,” Jake tells him. “You are aware it is a book of poetry?”
The moment is funny it that we locate ourselves on the dreadful security line, the improbability of the encounter, of a poet – even a Yale award winner – being recognized as a kind of celebrity.
15. Nick is, of course, aware that it is a book of poetry and it is moments like these – fleeting moments of connection that offer glimpses of Nick’s interior life – that propel the reader forward in an unforgiving book that might otherwise run cold.
16. We don’t ever hear Jake’s poems, or read them. We see Nick attend a reading at a club. He does refer to one poem called “Ode to a Baggage Handler.” I like to imagine it a villanelle.
17. On Sadie: “Sadie and I played a game in the park. We picked people from the crowd and imagined what they would look like when they got old. She projected the subtle slump of a shoulder into the octogenarian’s humped osteoporosis. I predicted how far the chins would recede, the overbite yellow, the eyelids fall.
Who would have the liver spots among the tattoos gone blue?
“Not me,” Sadie would say and wink.
All the thoughts unasked. Did you own horses? Who were your friends? What role did you perform in your high school play? Do you look like your mom or your dad? Did your hamster die when you were six? Who was your first kiss, your first fuck? What did your room look like? Did you lie on your brother’s blue sleeping bag and stare up at Colorado star fields? Did you pretend to be a cowboy, or did you favor the Indian side?
Some you could guess at. But all of these questions of her past were off limits.”
18. On a business trip to Las Vegas, Nick expects to again encounter his ghost father and he is not disappointed: “My father, despite his career as a tight-fisted literature professor, also had a small-stakes passion for gambling. When I was 21, he took me to Las Vegas for my birthday, a trip which had long been promised since the age of about nine.”
19. His father accompanies him to the roulette wheel, coaches him. “I didn’t make a noise when I won, but even in my stunned silence, passersby began to take notice of the mounting chips and the demonic accuracy of the last chip I placed on the table.”
20. “They love you, the universe loves you,” my father said. “People know your name and you’re leading them to easy money.” He keeps betting as his father instructs. He keeps winning. And his father, angry ghost, is just getting warmed up.
21. Nick steps away from the table, knowing that it’s just a matter of time before he is approached by security. Seeing this moment of vulnerability, his father attacks. He calls him a “quitter,” and shouts at him. Nick walks away from the table, leaving his winnings behind.
22. Later, a celebrity client showers Nick with praise and the moment takes on the weight of the approval earlier withheld. Shaun D. Braun, football star and fashion mogul, says to Nick: “You my boy.”
“My boy. A line from a story my father used to teach ran through me head. That’s the best position they is. I sat in on his classes at times, the days when I entertained the life for myself, the precocious professor’s son slouching in the back row, getting the gospel that it mattered. I could see him behind his own podium, his glasses flashing, the chalk dust on his blazer. Grammar undone in the line drive of the bullet. That’s the best position they is.”
23. No spoilers, but: You can’t go home again. No spoilers, but: In a quietly devastating exchange, Pontius delivers a truth to Nick that only the damned can know. Nick, when he receives it, knows it too.
24. This book is circus and spectacle. This book is haunted by bad bosses and tragic love affairs. This book is watched over by lost fathers. This book says many things, but at the points at which I most loved this book, it was saying this: We move around in the world as collections of all that we have experienced, all we have known. We are connected by invisible threads to all those we have loved, who have loved us. We go after things we think we want, or we don’t. We act on the wounds we have sustained whether or not we acknowledge them. Whether or not we can identify the places from which we are bleeding.
There is no fate. There is no destiny. There is only our choices and their consequences.
25. In the end, there is a very literal end. The curtain falls on circus and spectacle. The plane lands. The taxicabs are summoned.
There is also a beginning. And the author meets himself, another version of himself.
Just as I think we all meet other versions of ourselves when we travel through the books we love best.
Mary-Kim Arnold is a writer living in Rhode Island. A Korean-American adoptee, she was born in Seoul, Korea and grew up in Bronxville, New York. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Brown University. She lives with her family in a restored Victorian home in Pawtucket and tries to keep up with her garden. She maintains a personal blog at: http://mkimarnold.tumblr.com and spends too much time on twitter: @mkimarnold.