This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death


One day in the spring of 1993, author Harold Brodkey checked into a Manhattan emergency room unable to move and scarcely able to breathe. When he was later diagnosed with the AIDS virus, Brodkey greeted the devastating - and completely unexpected - news with an odd lightheartedness, a perverse fascination with his passage from the ranks of the living to the fraternity of the dying. As a novelist, he refused the fate that had been assigned to him: his acute editorial sensibility told him that he had been badly ...
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One day in the spring of 1993, author Harold Brodkey checked into a Manhattan emergency room unable to move and scarcely able to breathe. When he was later diagnosed with the AIDS virus, Brodkey greeted the devastating - and completely unexpected - news with an odd lightheartedness, a perverse fascination with his passage from the ranks of the living to the fraternity of the dying. As a novelist, he refused the fate that had been assigned to him: his acute editorial sensibility told him that he had been badly miscast as a condemned man. In This Wild Darkness, Brodkey, who died on January 26, 1996, examines his predicament with the same irony and lucidity he brought to his acclaimed fiction. Part journal, part memoir, part essay, this book offers a frank and profound exploration of Brodkey's sexuality, his relationships, and the slow, withering advance of his disease. A stirring self-portrait from one of our greatest men of letters, This Wild Darkness lends a fresh and heroic perspective to the subject of AIDS, death, and love.
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Editorial Reviews

Rob Spillman

Harold Brodkey saw things in black and white. For Brodkey -- who died this January at the age of 65 -- the truth was naked and the utopian dreams of the American middle class were idiotic and stillborn. Praised for his striking language and vilified for his irascible nature and bleak outlook, Brodkey was a surprisingly major literary force for someone who produced such a small body of work -- four books by the time he learned he had AIDS at the age of sixty-two.

This Wild Darkness offers a glimpse into the conflicted soul of this complex intellectual. Part essay, part diary, much of the book appeared in The New Yorker, for which Brodkey had written for a number of years. It is not a typical AIDS chronicle. It is a scattershot summation of a life, filled with remembrances of his grim Midwestern childhood (his mother died when he was two, then his father allegedly sold him to a couple, and his adopted father sexually abused young Brodkey), his dabbling with homosexuality in the '60's and '70's (Brodkey claims that he was infected in 1977, the last time he had a homosexual encounter), his controversial literary career (vaguely recounted in passing and with many jibes at Manhattan's vicious and petty literary scene), and his 15-year relationship with his loyal and steadfast wife Ellen.

There is no real cohesion or progression of ideas; only the unvarnished ire of a misanthrope, someone sick of absolutely everybody binds the book together. Yet when Brodkey writes about his impending death, he is remarkably lucid and poetic. "Death itself is soft, softly lit, vastly dark. The self becomes taut with metamorphosis and seems to give off some light and to have a not-quite-great-enough fearlessness toward the immensity of the end of the individuality, toward one's absorption into the dance of particles and inaudibility." Brodkey's chronicle of his death is a fitting reflection of his life -- difficult, occasionally wickedly funny and filled with beautifully rendered prose. -- Salon

Library Journal
Brodkey (Profane Friendship, LJ 2/15/94), who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1993, died last year at the age of 65. At the time of diagnosis, he told his doctor, "Look, it's only death. It's not like losing your hair or your money. I don't have to live with it." He insisted on going home, where he wrote, spent some time in the country, and kept the journal that became the present work. Here, he closely observes the progress of his disease and his feeling toward life and death, the reactions of other people, and his relations with them, especially the strong relationship with his wife, novelist Ellen Schwamm. He writes briefly of his childhood and earlier experiences with homosexuality. Along the way, he comments on New York City, hospitals, and the literary scene. His final work is a clear, honest, detailed observation and analysis of the sort he is known for that does not gloss over reality. "Endless sickness without death," he writes, "is more sickening than I would have imagined." In the end, he finds, "Now one belongs entirely to nature, to time: identity was a game." This work will be of interest to public, academic, and medical libraries.Nancy Shires, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, N.C.
Kirkus Reviews
With remarkable grace and stunning bravery, Brodkey (The Runaway Soul, 1991, etc.) chronicles his own harrowing slide into illness and death.

At first glance it seems an obvious—and cruel—irony that recording the "passage into nonexistence" should fall to a writer whose lifework was so vibrantly obsessed with chronicling the self. Yet it's difficult to imagine a writer better equipped to accomplish that grim task than Brodkey, whose restless intellect and elegant, precise language bestowed an almost physical beauty on the abstraction of human consciousness. From the time he was diagnosed with AIDS, while editing his novel Profane Friendship in the spring of 1993, until his death earlier this year, continuing to write—to convey order on formlessness—seems to have been not only an anodyne but a constant, sustaining desire for Brodkey. This book, portions of which appeared in the New Yorker, is many things: a journal that catalogs the daily indignities (the countless pills, the loss of strength and independence, the vagaries of public perception) attendant on AIDS; a memoir poignant with self-doubt and regret; a calm meditation on (and preparation for) death. For all his prickly combativeness and wounded vanity, Brodkey doesn't rage at the dying of the light. He saves his greatest bitterness and vituperation not for death, but for certain elements of New York life, especially for the city's "literary empire-builders and . . . masters of fakery." Yet throughout his illness he remains devoted to the city, to his wife, Ellen Schwamm, whose ministrations and love are of immense importance and comfort to him, and ultimately to himself and his work. "If I had to give up what I've written in order to be clear of this disease," he declares near the end, "I wouldn't do it."

Deeply affecting—a haunted, haunting work that penetrates with starling directness to the very core of the human mysteries: how to live, how to die.

From the Publisher

"A tour de force of brilliant observation."-Los Angeles Times

"Brilliant. A precise and attentive record."-The Boston Globe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780830041800
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/28/1996
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 177

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  • Posted January 13, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    More a Dissertation on Living than Dying

    Harold Brodkey, now fifteen years after his death, remains in the highest category of writers of the English language. And this is a fine time to return to his memoirs THIS WILD DARKNESS: THE STORY OF MY DEATH simply to be reminded about how completely involved in the cycle of life Brodkey lived. There is nothing maudlin about these 177 pages of thoughts about his history of being diagnosed with AIDS and succumbing to it, and though the reader does feel the author's flirtation with the idea of the joy of being alive, Brodkey freely talks about the act of dying as a rather ordinary part of the cycle of being on the earth.

    While some author's faced with the act of dying fill pages of memoirs with remorse, Brodkey instead shares his own experiences freely - from a very honest account of his contraction of the disease, to a discussion of his sexuality, a discussion that spends the majority of time in praise of his wife Ellen, to his thoughts on the act of dying. His discussions about his physician Barry who informs him of his diagnosis is a story within a story and one not at all unlike the author's novels. But perhaps those of us who deeply admire Harold Brodkey's gifts can find special meaning in some of his last thoughts: 'I regret having been so polite in the past. I'd like to trample on at least a dozen people. Maybe I will live long enough to do just that before I waste away to the point where I can't trample on a goose feather. Anyway, I have been in bed, in the fetal position, for two weeks. I wish were young. I am sick of leaves and fresh air. Nature doesn't seem serious enough, or rather it seems TOO serious on the death front.' And the final sentences from this book: 'Peace? There was never any in the world. But in the pliable water, under the sky, unmoored, I am traveling now and hearing myself laugh, at first with nerves and then with genuine amazement. It is all around me.'

    This book is a gift for the living: reading it makes the ordinary aspects of living so divine.

    Grady Harp

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