by: Darrin Doyle
Tortoise Books, 2014
Reviewed by Clifford Garstang
The stories of George Saunders have been described as “savage and satirical,” set in a world where things have gotten a little weird, populated by characters that speak a strange new language. The same could be said, it seems to me, of the stories in Darrin Doyle’s new collection, The Dark Will End the Dark. In fact, Doyle’s world is more than just a little weird. As in Saunders’s stories, the reader often begins in a realistic realm, one that is deceptively familiar, but is soon transported to another dimension, one where a husband’s head has died and is amputated, or a boy’s hand becomes pregnant with the unpopular girl he has touched, or a divorced man’s body is covered with inexplicable sores as he comes to terms with all he has lost.
The book’s title comes from its epigraph, excerpted from E.A. Robinson’s poem “Luke Havergal”: “But there, where western glooms are gathering/ The dark will end the dark, if anything:/ God slays Himself with every leaf that flies, / And hell is more than half of paradise.” Indeed, as in the poem, the characters in Doyle’s stories face existential dilemmas and can be forgiven if they find death seductive.
In the collection’s opening story, “Tugboat to Traverse City,” which incorporates a fine use of the third person plural point of view, a group of young travelers find themselves paralyzed by the apparent drowning of their fellow passengers on a tugboat. First one passenger—a child—jumps overboard, then another jumps in to save the boy, and then another, and another. The remaining travelers wonder if they should take action. “Or should we just stand here and wait?” one of their party asks. “We were all trying to think, as the sounds of death swelled around us.” And finally they opt to do nothing. If Saunders doesn’t come to mind, think, maybe, of Beckett.
The universe is operating more normally in “Ha-Ha, Shirt,” but the story’s narrator is one of the least admirable protagonists you’re likely to find in fiction. He’s fraudulently drawing disability because of a minor work injury, he openly cheats on his wife, Sarah, with other women, men, and even an inflatable doll, and he’s constantly drunk and/or high. But he does have a moment of redemption—or is it merely evidence of his polyamorism?—when his friend Shirt insists on having sex with Sarah. Instead of accommodating his friend to save himself, as we might expect this loser to do—Shirt is waving a gun around and looks capable of using it—he offers his own body in her place: “Nothing in my book is more evil than forcing sex on a person, and there’s no way Sarah’s having it even to avoid being shot, so I call Shirt a few more names and say if wants to do someone just do me and move on with life . . . ”
While the bulk of the collection is pretty dark, “The Hiccup King” offers a rare note of optimism. Owen’s wife Tanya (curiously, one of a couple of women in the book named Tanya) leaves him, in part because of his unceasing hiccups. When he seeks out the hiccup world-record holder to better understand what his future might be like, Owen discovers that the man is a fraud and that, in fact, Owen’s own hiccups have lasted longer. Sworn to secrecy, Owen remarries, has a child, and his life doesn’t look so bad. He doesn’t have the official record, but, privately, he knows he is the king. Life goes on.
In addition to the collection’s stylistic echoes of Saunders, it is interesting structurally. Connecting the book’s longer stories are a number of much shorter pieces named for body parts—“Foot,” “Penis,” “Mouth,” “Eyes,” and so on. These pieces, while enriching the collection’s exploration of the body, tend to take on an even more absurdist flavor. There’s the woman who severs her foot to feed her child and then cuts off his foot to teach him a lesson in sacrifice, the mouth that lives in a boy’s closet, and the woman who sees her fiancé only after she has an eye transplant.
The overall effect is disturbing—in a good way. Like the best literature, these stories make us think. They challenge us to ask questions about human motives. Why don’t those passengers on the tugboat act? Why does the mother cut off her son’s foot? Why do any of the characters do what they do? How would we act if we were in their place?