The Dark Path
(Riverhead Hardcover, 2013)
An especially trying day might begin as follows: I stub my toe on the door jamb en route to the kitchen to make coffee, whereupon I discover the coffee machine is broken; then, it rains during my walk to the coffee shop and my magazine gets wet; then, the coffee shop is out of Splenda. I become enraged. I curse the heavens. Later, over a much-needed cocktail, I tell a friend about my morning. I embellish the facts, my ire resurfaces, and my friend nods, politely acknowledging how terrible it must have been.
I have elected to tell my friend this anecdote, as opposed to, say, drafting a handwritten letter about it, because it isn’t a story grand enough to be written down. Sound and fury notwithstanding, mine is just a tale told by some irascible guy in a bar, and it doesn’t signify much. It only feels like it, in the moment.
But don’t we all like to imbue the tribulations of our lives, especially the long-term ones, with Shakespearean drama, if only to convey to our listeners the magnitude of the feelings we felt? Certainly memoirists do. From the moment pen hits paper, their interests are best served by finding the most gripping narrative with which to frame the events of their lives, complete with symbols, allegories, foreshadowings, and all other devices of the storyteller.
David Schickler’s memoir, The Dark Path, presents a fertile, if somewhat familiar, topic: a young man torn between a call to the Catholic priesthood and a desire to plumb the rich and gritty realities of secular life, especially those involving women. Schickler’s principle metaphor is the titular one, referring to a path through the woods behind his childhood home, a path on which, as a boy, he felt his greatest closeness to God. Coming into adulthood, life’s inevitable complications tested his resolve, and the significance of his literal dark path, on which he literally listened for the voice of God, ceded to a figurative dark path, that of “normal” life, on which he came to doubt God’s very existence.
One would assume, given amply described romantic and/or sexual ardor for half the women the author has ever come across, that the figurative “dark” is going to offer some good old-fashioned naughtiness. One might expect some excitement from a young man who worries about disappointing his pious father because “all the sexed-up, violent books and movies that you hate are all the things that I love…I can never be good the way you’re good.”
Alas, no. Schickler inches up to the salacious stuff, but he never takes the plunge. The shadow of his God and his devout dad dampens his every hot impulse. He won’t have sexual intercourse with his girlfriends because he might yet become a priest. He’s reluctant to take Paxil for depression, or to drink too much, because dad never showed such “weakness.” Here he is talking to a “stunning” student at the secondary school where he taught English in his mid-20s:
I look down at the papers I’m supposed to correct. It’s quiet. If we were out in the real world and I were a normal man and she were a student, I’d buy her a drink…
“So,” she says, “a girl destroyed you?”
…I tell her my deal. Not all of it, just the priesthood stuff, a couple hints about depression, nothing about sex or pills.
The sex he doesn’t have? The pills he doesn’t take? There is a failure to meet expectations given the way he sets things up. Surely, he is telling the truth, but a story in which “the dark path” equates to “maybe I won’t become a priest so I can do the normal things normal people do” makes for dull reading unless injected with sardonic humor or a unique prose style, which it is not. The notion of “vice” from someone whose first guiding standard was the priestly ideal won’t pack much of a punch. Schickler is like a nerdy schoolboy thrilled by his own nerve in sneaking a cookie before dinner, while his peers are smoking weed in the woods out back.
The generous reader, then, well through this oddly toothless narrative, hopes that the absence of drama will at least be compensated for by discussion of a personal conflict that would resonate with a lot of people. And still, he will be disappointed. The book never strays from the young man’s journey and the young man’s point of view: craving always a message from God to illuminate his path, frustrated always by God’s persistent silence. That Schickler’s most “real” experience of God’s presence often comes in the form of romantic love could make for an interesting contradiction—the closeness with God he desires is attained through a relationship that being a priest forbids—but the author never probes beyond a young person’s simple reach. His girlfriend breaks up with him, so maybe he’ll become a priest. The institution of Catholicism fails him, so maybe he’d better find a wife. This zigzagging is familiar to anyone who has pondered the incompatibilities of secular and spiritual life, but The Dark Path offers little nuanced discussion about why the experiences of romantic love and spiritual communion so often suggest each other and, sometimes, can be indistinguishable.
So, the ungenerous critic must ask: why this book? We know from the outset that Mr. Schickler didn’t become a priest, and we know he found success as a writer (his debut work of fiction, Kissing in Manhattan, was a bestseller). We learn, right at the end, that he found a woman whom he loved deeply enough to believe the relationship ordained by God. And we have no doubt that, along the way, he felt passion and pain enough to move mountains. Does hewing to the hard truth invite the possibility of boring one’s audience? The Dark Path is a sweet and tepid tale, told by a good, earnest, unironic man, signifying—well, signifying that life sometimes needs a little sprucing up in the retelling.