Sitting at Easter Mass at the age of ten, David Schickler recalls listening to his “sweet wife cry while I watch the priest.” His wife’s name is Caitlin Brenner, though Schickler notes that she “hasn’t agreed to marry me yet.” “We rarely talk,” he writes, “but soon she’ll realize that we have each four syllables total in our names and both our last names end with -er. David Schickler. Caitlin Brenner. This means that we shall wed and have four children.”
Caitlin is crying because her cockier spaniel, Gus, died the week before. Schickler is caught between watching her (silently “bombarding her with woo”) and paying attention to the service. Leading Mass is Father Jonas — “young, with jet-black hair and a tan.” Schickler is enraptured with Father Jonas, who is “powerful because he’s a priest, but he’s also just cool.” As Father Jonas raises the wafer for the Eucharist, and Caitlin continues sniffling, young David’s ten-year-old mind tries to hold the two seemingly irreconcilable things in balance. He feels a pull toward the priesthood; he also loves women. “I’m caught between them,” he says simply.
Of all the books we’ve read and not blogged about over the past three years, Schickler’s The Dark Path is our favorite. (Fourth of July Creek is right up there though.) We were already predisposed to like it based on a short story of Schickler’s called “The Smoker.” It appeared in the June 19, 2000 edition of The New Yorker; it chronicled the surprising romantic relationship between a high school English teacher and his star pupil. Yes, this sounds tawdry and scandalous. (And, as two high school English teachers, we can never recommend it to our students. Ever.) The story is anything but. It is surprising, moving, and hilarious. (Read it. Right now. We’ll wait.)
Within a week of the story’s publication, Schickler had a six-figure, two-book contract. The story later appeared in a collection entitled Kissing in Manhattan, an uneven but promising group of tales about characters who lived in or passed through a storied apartment building in Manhattan called The Preemption. Schickler then published a novel, Sweet & Vicious, which featured one of the funniest first page-and-a-halves we’ve ever read before taking familiar thematic elements (crime and a cross-country chase; star-crossed lovers) and putting an offbeat spin on them (Grace McClone, the heroine, is “trying for heaven”; she’s an authentic Christian character who appears to have wandered into the wrong book, until you realize it’s a Schickler novel and just go with it).
The Dark Path is a memoir, and it takes the themes swirling around in Kissing in Manhattan and Sweet & Vicious (love, faith, family, sexual desire, hints of violence) and casts them in a personal light. The Schicklers are a devout Christian family (David has three sisters, and there are hints in his childhood — as when his father catches him dancing in the basement to “Summer Nights” from the Grease soundtrack — that his parents are deeply concerned he might be gay), and although Schickler becomes an altar boy, he feels closest to God on “the dark path” — a spot in the woods, full of shadows, close to his house. “My problem is, I like abiding in darkness,” Schickler writes:
I like the dark path, the low, forever shadows among the trees. For me, God is in that darkness. He’s not a devil, or a tree, or a wood sprite. He’s the Lord, He just happens to be in darkness.
Why do we like Schickler (and in particular, The Dark Path) so much? Because we feel like we’ve been on the dark path with him. Our road to faith is not, like the vocabulary of Father Anselm in The Dark Path (who uses words like “nifty” and “dilly”) “scrubbed too clean.” Schickler deploys profanity well; his memoir crackles with curse words, which counterbalance the spiritual themes and make them more approachable, less preachy. Schickler says, “As a writer, I’ll never be a Sunday-morning kind of guy. For whatever reasons, I am good at writing only about Saturday night things, about guns and screwing and liquor and murder and laughter and desperate kissing.” We like Saturday night stories that still locate Sunday morning themes. So Schickler is our guy on that front.
Likewise, Schickler’s ability to write humorously and honestly about matters of faith is what makes The Dark Path so winning. When a choir member wears “an alarmingly yellow dress,” Schickler writes that “she is so yellow, I can’t pray.” The usher, Mr. Bonticello, wears a robin’s-egg-blue suit which disturbs Schickler “because the color is too weak and too lame to have anything to do with God.” When Schickler wins a Religion Award in eighth grade, one of his friends signs his yearbook, Nice Going, Jesus Tard!
On his journey to live a godly life as well as love women, Schickler inevitably stumbles and sins and has his heart broken. (He also does some breaking of his own.) His is the story of a sinner who is unafraid to lay it all out on the table, even to laugh at some of the most excruciating moments. There’s a dance contest toward the end of the memoir which could be straight out of Silver Linings Playbook, and like that film, it manages uplift and sentimentality without being cheesy or cloying. Also like the film, The Dark Path nails a happy ending that feels hard-won — unexpected, but deserved.