Review: Schickler makes ordinary life seem extraordinary
05:00 AM, Sep 10, 2013
If you go
What: David Schickler reads from The Dark Path.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Barnes & Noble, Pittsford Plaza, 3349 Monroe Ave.
Call: (585) 586-6020.
The Dark Path is also available as an audio book, with Schickler reading, at recordedbooks.com.
Book clubs! Schickler can be contacted through his web site, davidschickler.com or on Twitter @davidschickler.
It’s been about a year since writer David Schickler told me over lunch that was writing his memoir. I was skeptical. Does a guy who’s published just two books, and seems to have no serious drinking or drug problems and hasn’t killed anyone have a story to tell?
The Dark Path (Riverhead Hardcover, $27.95), out Thursday, answers that question with a resounding yes. The Gates native and Brighton resident has created a funny, sad, wise, excruciatingly honest, simply told and beautifully written story of what should have been a blessed life, given his advantages: good family, educated at McQuaid Jesuit High School, Georgetown and Columbia universities, even a winner of the Religion Award as an eighth-grader at Saint Helen’s School.
Instead, Schickler’s life has been one of perpetual crisis. His pain makes for very entertaining reading.
Just as ancient holy men once read chicken entrails, Schickler sifts through three decades of minor anecdotes and major life events alike for meaning: Are these signs that he is to be a priest, or a horny writer?
The very book title is rife with metaphor in all directions. Young Schickler is confused as to which road to take. In church, he is constantly taught that Jesus is all about light. Yet Schickler loves the darkness, and the natural mystery, of the path through the woods behind his house.
He admires the men of faith in his life, but craves the women around him.
The dark path will not always be a comforting journey. We don’t even get out of Chapter One before it is desecrated right before his virgin eyes.
When young Schickler asks why he sometimes discovers broken pieces of china in the woods, his dad tells him it’s because years ago the downtown restaurants would pack up the remains of dinner debris, including broken plates, and truck them out to what used to be a pig farm behind their house. “Now our woods have grown over all that and they’re beautiful,” the unrelentingly upbeat Jack Schickler says. His son thinks: “I come from a dump.”
So even as a kid, Schickler displayed the same intense cynical self-awareness that serves him well as a writer today. It inhabits the twisted characters of his 2001 New York Times best-selling collection of stories, Kissing in Manhattan. It is in the comic and screwed-up Bonnie and Clyde couple of his 2004 novel, Sweet and Vicious. And it is like the 2-by-4 to the head delivered by the pulp-fiction sex-and-blood series Banshee that he co-created last year for Cinemax.
The young Schickler seems to have been unusually spiritual, enraptured by the beauty of nature, and he’s carried that into adulthood. Shadows are beautiful. Insincerity is not. The 21st century reader’s discomfort with kids referring to each other as retards and offhand use of the n-word by less-educated characters is the writer’s acknowledgment of the real, ugly world.
It’s certainly not a spoiler to reveal that the 44-year-old Schickler did not become a priest. He was shaken by his inability to handle the mental disciplines demanded by the priesthood, and by hypocrisies that include a priest making a pass at Schickler while he was a college student. He describes himself now as an “itinerant, under-the-radar believer.”
Walking The Dark Path, Schickler evolves from failed writer to successful writer: The New Yorker throws a cocktail party in his honor at a Polo store in SoHo. He stumbles from failed and frequently shallow romances to true love: He marries a Rochester woman, Martha DeLaCroix, who came to his book reading at Geva Nextstage and was struck by the notion that she would spend the rest of her life with this man. And he settles down: Late in the book, Schickler takes his 3-year-old son to see his dark path. It is still there, behind the house where Jack and Peggy Schickler live.
So the deed has been written. Sitting in the bright sunshine outside of Java’s on Gibbs Street last week, Schickler fretted over what the reaction to The Dark Path will be from his parents and many relatives in the Rochester area.
He is a natural fretter. He talked about what his pursuit of the priesthood meant to his writing: “I was made to feel that my soul was on the line every day.” He equated darkness with “the stuff that draws the worthwhile stuff out of you. I want darkness, I want mystery, and I want it to be especially cool.”
He recalled a phrase that the late writer Reynolds Price once handed down at a book talk, advice that so resonated with Schickler that he had to ask Price about it afterward. “Emotional outlaw,” Schickler says. “As soon as he said it, I knew that is what I am.”
The Dark Path has been a painful journey. My initial judgment was wrong. There are pills for pain and depression. Health issues, including a brief HIV concern casually introduced by a doctor. Loads of self-doubt. Schickler’s pain when his father discovers his thesis novel and finds it to be disturbingly violent and oversexed.
And the fact that love hurts. Sometimes literally. Schickler tells one story of taking a date to Richmond’s, his favorite downtown Rochester bar. Alone in the upstairs room, she rolls up the sleeve of his U2 T-shirt and bites him on the arm. You wonder, what kind of freak chick is this, biting on a first date? You also wonder, why does Schickler let her bite him? Twice?
But love’s even more painful when Schickler loses it. He gets the sayonara letter from his first true girlfriend while teaching writing at a private academy in Vermont. He makes the mistake of opening it during class.
Or is it a mistake? His students respond, show concern. Are you crying? Yes. Was it from a girl? He nods and says, “So I just have to get my heart broken to get you guys to pay attention?” They urge him to tell them about the girl. He does. It’s a beautiful scene, well told. That moment and many others, shows an honest man, and an honest writer.