APRIL 25, 2020
I FIRST ATTEMPTED to read Jeff Sharlet’s This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers sitting next to a hospice bed as my father finished his life. I was distracted by how much of my dad’s final hours had been spent waiting for Tylenol.
I approached the book a second time two months later, but failed again, my mind preoccupied by wildfire-incinerated Australia.
These were worthy interruptions, life and the world asserting themselves with callousness enough to render impossible the kind of focus This Brilliant Darkness rewards and deserves. But even through my distracted readings, Sharlet’s book helped me resist the barriers people sometimes erect to numb their suffering, to dull their empathy pains.
On a charmed third attempt, the book locked in — though the world attempted to intervene yet again, this time with foreboding news alerts of increased hostilities between the United States and Iran.
We often say that a book has changed our lives. But it’s rare to say that a book made us more human. This is a big statement, I know, but This Brilliant Darkness feels as transformative and essential as anything I have read in years. Sharlet’s work is an incantation, a prayer for and summoning of the human powers of observation, empathy, and compassion.
Written over a span of time between two heart attacks — the first Sharlet’s father’s, the second Sharlet’s own — Darkness is an intimate travelogue of human suffering, confusion, and, in fleeting moments, transcendence. During the course of many insomnia-afflicted nights, Sharlet began going for walks, observing strangers, and taking photos, quick shots on his phone during his graveyard-shift wanderings. The result is a wholly hypnotic series of short essays, most of which are accompanied by Sharlet’s tender, bare photos. The easiest comparison is to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee and Walker Evans’s photographic and literary chronicle of impoverished Great Depression farmers. Sharlet’s book, though rooted in the same powerful synergy between images and text, feels even more expansive in its attempt at community.
As he writes early in the book, This Brilliant Darkness is part of a “deeply democratic, or maybe even religious, notion that what I see — one person’s vision — could matter to you so much that we could see together.” By taking things that are so often greeted as disposable — cell phone snapshots, Instagram posts, impoverished people — and giving them his singular attention, Sharlet offers a powerful text resembling the humanity it seeks to document: as painful as it is beautiful, as durable as it is instructive.
The violence of compression that takes place in any review feels particularly brutish here, without the accompanying photos or the cumulative resonance. This is particularly poignant because the book is Sharlet’s own necessarily distorted but miraculously complete compression. Take the photo and essay about Mike, a 34-year-old night baker at Dunkin’ Donuts. He wears an elaborate skull T-shirt, headphones draped around his neck, hands halfway in the pockets of his dark jeans. Mike’s getting out of the donut business and plans to go into house-painting, but in Sharlet’s photo he poses tough in front of a tray of donuts, a tear tattooed under his eye for his son who, as he tells Sharlet, “died when he was two months old.” Later in the book, a shocking photo: a riot of feathers as more than a dozen pigeons alight on a homeless man prone in a doorway. The man coaches Sharlet to step back before snapping his photo, to steady the pigeons’ anxiety. “I stepped back,” Sharlet writes, “the birds returned. Together they ate.”
Or there’s the story of Larry LaRose. LaRose offers himself as a photo subject and then unzips his fleece to reveal several lanyards around his neck. Each contains a fragment of his life: “[T]he names of his caregivers; a Kiwanis Club group for the mentally disabled; an invitation to a Halloween dance.” After LaRose invites Sharlet to the dance, he shows one final lanyard, this one containing a photo of LaRose’s deceased twin brother. “‘Now you have everything,’ [La Rose] says, pleased. ‘So you didn’t come out here for nothing.’”
We who are lucky surround ourselves with a disaster-diffusing web, something that dulls life’s blows enough to be bearable. This web includes our home, our connections and networks where we find — or at least can profitably seek — security. I have a wife and a child, friends. Other people, like Larry LaRose, have the social services that assist them, or they have scraps of paper and random invitations that they have imbued with their social significance. Receipts of at least some kind of interaction with the world. Or, like Mike, they have loss, like the loss of a child, that they nurture in order to not entirely forget themselves. Holding yourself together by embracing loss seems excruciating, but it’s still a way to hold yourself together.
One of the book’s most arresting sections concerns Mary Mazur, an unstable elderly woman who has been boarded at a cheap motel by the state and whose only companions are a tattered, taped-together house plant; three spectral presences that seem to trail her through her life; and, for a brief moment, three goldfish. You’ve seen a Mary Mazur in your life, probably more often than you realize. A near destitute person in a fast food restaurant or grocery store parking lot, nearly incoherent in their paranoia, trying somehow to navigate an indifferent world in a way that helps them retain some kind of dignity. Sharlet encounters Mary late one freezing night at a fried chicken joint. She’d set out on foot from her hotel room, houseplant in tow, to buy a Thanksgiving turkey. This trip ends with the police and the EMS, but Sharlet stays the course, befriending Mary and showing us just how resilient the woman is to have overcome a series of traumas that would destroy most people.
All of this is nested in Sharlet’s powerful, evocative prose. Sharlet has written or co-written five previous books, including his best known, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, an investigation of one of the United States’s most connected, politically potent, and financially robust fundamentalist ministries. The Family rightfully positioned Sharlet as one of our more provocative investigators of conjoined political and religious power. But in his other work, both his books and his many excellent long-form magazine pieces, purer faith often anchors his tales, and his writing is often as luminous as his subjects’ belief. As Sharlet writes late in This Brilliant Darkness, “You realize just how fragile everything is. Instead of standing on land you realize you’re on a boat, and it’s a small boat and the ocean is all around you, and the best hope is just to stay on the boat, because there is no land.”
This is a beautiful metaphor for life generally, but it becomes painfully poignant when used as a lens through which to look at the poor, indigent, or forgotten people who are allowed to slip through the system.
Sharlet spends pages discussing Charley, a Cameroonian immigrant, whose dreams of returning home as an accomplished actor soon fall apart, landing him on Los Angeles’s Skid Row. The LAPD kills Charley — executes him, holds him down and shoots him five times — for nothing. Sharlet digs into Charley’s story, initially offering a frame-by-frame analysis of cell phone footage of Charley’s murder. Then Sharlet moves deeper, unearthing Charley’s personal and family history, his life on Skid Row, and the ways in which he strived to remain human in the tense, brittle moments that often make up life on the streets. Succinct and devastating, through Charley’s story Sharlet shows just how perverted the flaccid news reports of police shootings can be. If we were exposed to even half of these American tragedies — the striving, the attempts that people make that conclude with their murder at the hands of the state — well, I don’t know what would happen. Things would be different? The surface narratives of This Brilliant Darkness are thin skins stretched over lush, teeming social disorders and attempts at self-preservation.
Sharlet could have examined any of his subjects with this extended care, revealing the complexity of their lives and our society’s disregard. The result would have been the same: an annihilation of the myth of American compassion (the book has bracing chapters set elsewhere in the world, including an incredible sequence set in Putin’s violently homophobic Russia, but the heart of the book is the United States). Americans often pride ourselves on some unique capacity to care. We think we’re good at it. Even people who disbelieve in the utility of a generalized social safety net still bray on and on about how quick they are to help their neighbors. This simply isn’t true, attestations to our limitless empathy notwithstanding.
It took a long time to write this piece. Everything I’ve mentioned in this modest summary of Sharlet’s book occurs in a world whose foreseeable future can only be deepening crisis. As I type this sentence, Italy is under a nationwide lockdown, most of my friends are working from home, and my local market has bare shelves. We have added a pandemic to our usual docket of tornadoes and train wrecks. All of this occurs against a backdrop of disappearing ice sheets, entire continents battling conflagration, and desperation run amok. This Brilliant Darkness is an eloquent, bracing invitation to look at the human cost of this human suffering. It is only through this — through exercising compassion for people we don’t know, or who we find alien, or who we, quite frankly, do not like — that we might possibly remain human as life continues to mutate into crisis and the world as we have known it recedes beneath the rising tide of manifold devastation.