Book Review

In spite of advice to avoid judging books by their covers, literary works occasionally demand a particular interpretation; for example, I might have read Jesus’ Son as a novel if not for the word “Stories” appearing on the cover. Sometimes, books with otherwise untenable classifications are marketed as “A Novel,” an ostensible decoder ring for the unsure reader (I’m thinking of hypertextual works such as Lincoln in the Bardo, House of Leaves, and Pale Fire). The cover of Gary Fincke’s new book, The Darkness Call, urges us to read its twenty entries as “Essays,” but after finishing the book, I’m not so sure. If I’m to use anything on the cover as a guide, I would rather take my interpretive cue from the artwork. Because, like the cover art, a diabolical and frenetic sphere dripping inky globules (Casablanca by Aldwyth), Fincke’s book is, more than anything else, a work of collage.

As a collagist, Fincke’s medium is the paragraph, each seldom exceeding a dozen lines, demarcated by white space, and, more often than not, set off by a simple title as though each paragraph begins a new chapter. In many cases each paratactic paragraph flies in a different direction than the last. Content varies, and so does form; while some of Fincke’s paragraphs are anecdotal, others state historical facts; internet search results; and, in at least one case, a physics formula (to make ironic sense of the World Trade Center tragedies).

The result of these varied approaches is that the essays tend to impart a feeling, an emotional impression made by the sum total of all paragraphs (in the same way we holistically view a glue-and-paper collage), rather than offering a concrete meaning as we’d expect from the linear logic of a traditional essay. Yet, even though the sequence of the prose is seldom linear, a sense of wholeness unites Fincke’s disparate paragraphs, and to a more abstract extent, the entirety of the book. As such, while throughout the book not a single formula holds sway, Fincke’s collages manage to operate in recognizable and unifying modes.

For example, Fincke occasionally writes around a theme or image. Take the essay “Hearts,” in which the essay’s individual paragraphs orbit the titular image via a solar system of ideas such as Valentine’s candies, the spheration of astronaut hearts, the anomaly in Fincke’s sister’s heart (assuming we’re reading this as nonfiction), and, in the following case, the football-sized heart of a moose:

A moment later she described the haunch of moose she’d bartered from that family. “That moose was all mine, by rights,” she said, “but the father dressed it out, so it was a fair trade.” Even though it was raining heavily, she accelerated, our speed feeling like an exclamation point, the air inside the car so rich with story, change easily entered me. Because I love to eat organ meat, I asked her whether she’d received part of the heart and liver. “Not the heart,” she said. “Not that.”

Throughout, Fincke resists offering us an explicit connection between the various iterations of “the heart,” instead putting the related pieces on display before us, willfully separate, a dissection we can reconstruct any way we like. As with the disparate paragraphs, the collection as a whole resists being boiled down to a singular, global formula; however, patterns abound, with individual essays circling, like sharks, around issues of aging, machismo, family, and the macabre.

Other times, Fincke’s essays revolve around an obtuse, unknowable center. In these cases the essence wriggles through our fingers, yet each new paragraph and idea appears to orbit the same black hole. In one such essay, “Dragging the Forest,” the disparate sections are tied to the gravity of repulsive acts, such as the abduction of young girls, a man exposing himself to Fincke’s daughter, rape, murder, and even a pack of Boy Scouts searching for a child’s dead body. Still other essays are more conventional, memoir-like, as in “Proximity” and “The Simple Rhymes of Defense,” a pair of rather linear numbers that detail two of Fincke’s sojourns, one to his daughter in Los Feliz, and another to a correctional facility where the author details a sweaty and violent basketball game played by professors against inmates. These linear narratives function almost as a digestif to settle us after the other, more cubist modes.

I’m sure there are literary correlatives to Fincke, however, the comparison I can’t resist is to Mark Kozelek, better known as the singer-songwriter behind the band Sun Kil Moon. Both artists are drawn to grim melodrama (in Kozelek’s case, pugilistic men; and in Fincke’s, criminals, executions, and perversions). Both are obsessed with real-life murders, and each weaves personal stories and sentiments with historical artifacts (often of the esoteric variety). Neither cares about reaching a formal conclusion to individual pieces. Additionally, I would argue that, like Kozelek, Fincke is strongest when his work focuses on personal anecdotes, while the more distant, impersonal musings left me, as a reader, adrift.

That being said, like Sun Kil Moon’s best work, Fincke’s The Darkness Call wrangles with the complexities of esoteric, mystic, even grim topics in a way that manages to be relatable, maybe because Fincke never offers us answers, just puzzles. Also, the self-consciousness of the text—or the way the essays express a personal relationship with the author and the author’s close family—gives the book a fleshy, lived-in feel. And while not exactly espousing a humble voice, there is a humility to the workmanlike prose itself, a textual simplicity that gives the writing a thoughtful, zen-like countenance. So, while the structure can be baffling at times, or even off-putting, when the mood was right, I fell into the ambient rhythms of Fincke’s work, and by the end of my experience with his uniquely realized benders, I felt spent, curious, and exhilarated.

About the Reviewer

Kirk Sever is a writer, surfer, and teacher from southern California. His writing has been recognized by the Academy of American Poets George M. Dillon Memorial Award, the Northridge Fiction Award, the Fourteenth Annual Emerging Voices series, and has appeared in Permafrost, Storgy, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He teaches writing at three colleges in the San Fernando Valley, bartends in Hollywood, and surfs in Ventura.