“To have a self, to be a self, is the greatest concession made to man, but at the same time it is eternity’s demand upon them.” This dilemma, articulated by Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, is the crisis at the heart of David Schickler’s The Dark Path (Riverhead), a book that is equal parts grim and funny while dealing with weighty topics like faith, the existence of God, death, depression, and love.
It is the crisis of ‘self,’ and the accompanying balancing act of sating one’s needs while pursuing one’s lofty goals, that propels the memoir forward. The Dark Path traces the author’s spiritual journey from the religious fervor of his childhood to the frustrated atheism and sexual misadventures of his twenties and then, eventually, the quiet contentment of his middle years. With this ‘dark path’ to follow, the memoir seems promising, like the book will deal not only with the details of the author’s life but also explore the larger question of religion and its role in everyday life. However, although the author does do this to some extent, the book offers much more of the former and disappointingly little of the latter.
Throughout the memoir, Schickler attempts to reconcile his Catholic with his earthly desires. This results in a lot of existential angst (and a lot of cursing God, or “Lack-of-God,” as the author puts it in his darker moments), but it also produces funny gems like the following, in which Schickler creatively confines his fantasies within the bounds of the church’s no-sex-before-marriage creed: “I will take those ten thousand [women] to bed, one or two at a time, and get to third and a half base with each of them.”
This line is characteristic of the novel’s humor, which tends to ready like a more literary, less crass version of Seth Rogen or Paul Rudd comedy. There is, for example, the amusing story of crazy Scarlet, who bites Schickler’s arm hard enough to cause two severe bruises, as well as the slightly disturbing but funny tales of Schickler’s encounters with a masochistic hotel concierge.
Schickler’s prose is engagingly conversational, but perhaps too much so at times; describing his soon-to-be wife, he writes, “Because when we’re in bed and she’s asleep beside me, she smells not just like vanillaness but foreverness.” This line is a bit corny, but the real writing sin here is the two appended “ness.” Perhaps the author wanted to convey the way he speaks in his head, but the reader just sees clunky prose.
It is Schickler’s eventual wife, along with the recovery of his hip and the success of his debut story, published in The New Yorker, that lift Schickler from his depression and atheistic dread. However, this resolution of his crisis of faith feels unsatisfying since the kind of questions Schickler had asked were very serious ones. In his depression, he posed heavy philosophical questions like what is the source of meaning in a framework without God, but we readers don’t get much of his thinking on how he resolves this. Rather, the memoir’s resolution of his religious angst feels very hasty. (The final chapters skip many months, or years even, at a time.)
More analysis later on in the book would have made an entertaining story a rich one as well. The author does reflect on his return to religion at the very end of the book, but it feels more like a way to tie up a story rather than a means of introspective exploration. A more analytical memoir like Joan Didion’s National Book Award-winning The Year of Magical Thinking, which explored the author’s grief in the wake of her husband’s death, could have served as a good model to address the questions Schickler’s story asks.
In a review of Vanity Fair photographer Annie Leibovitz’s memoir, essayist and novelist Joyce Carol Oates writes, “Ours is an age of memoir—inevitably, faux memoir: the highly selective and enhanced employment of “real” persons, events, and settings in the creation of a text.” In terms the literary-ethical dilemma of facticity Oates points out, Schickler’s book is aware of these limitations (his preface explicitly states so); however, The Dark Path depends too much on the tantalizing quality of “realness.” The book does not achieve what, as Oates writes, the very best memoirs do: It is not “an art that can speak to others.”
The Dark Path, all in all, is an interesting read about sex, religion, and the nature of sin, and while the memoir itself does commit sins, just like Schickler does himself, they are venial, not mortal ones.