"This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death," by Harold Brodkey. Henry Holt 192 pages. $22.50.
It has the makings of a minor but affecting Woody Allen movie: A New York literary lion, famously afflicted by ego, self-doubt, erotic angst, and writer's block, dies slowly of AIDS while penning a torrent of wry introspection and observation. If the option were available, I'd choose the movie over the book. While Harold Brodkey's "This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death" is not without flashes of mordant humor and breathtaking insight, much of it would play better on screen, where good acting could take the place of long and self-indulgent stretches of the author's much-touted mystical prose.
To his credit, Brodkey's posthumously published journal avoids every shred of sentiment. His own harshest critic, he unsparingly depicts himself as alternating between bravado and terror, blankness and despair. Somewhat elliptically, he sketches in the years of homosexual "diddling" between his two marriages - some primal attempt, he implies, to sort out several years of sexual abuse by his adoptive father in early adolescence.
Although Brodkey erupts in odd, paranoid outbursts about his persecution by critics and other "enemies," he makes no attempt to win victim points as an AIDS patient. He acknowledges that, by the time of his diagnosis, AIDS (at least among white homosexuals) conferred just the opposite of pariah status in New York literary circles. He recounts being churlish, self-pitying, insufferable, and often, too fatigued to care. (The word "stillness" recurs throughout the book.) He obsesses, with seeming pettiness under the circumstances, over his reputation as a man of letters, and professes to have lived under a curse of "irresistibility."
Watching Brodkey watch himself die by inches becomes, ultimately, tedious - a tedium he duly explores as a curious attribute of life's waning months. (Bruce Springsteen evoked the physical and psychic horror of AIDS with infinitely greater economy in the pop song "Philadelphia.")
The book's richest reward is its portrait of the author's extraordinary marriage, to the fiercely devoted and tough-minded novelist Ellen Schwamm. (She knew of Brodkey's sexual adventures already and was not infected, a fact she claimed, convincingly, to regret.) Schwamm, whom Brodkey describes as "a fine-boned tyrant who looks a bit like a small Garbo," emerges as the story's quiet hero without a trace of cloying nobility.
The two, an offbeat midlife pairing, had a rocky yet symbiotic relationship; they were even competitive about who read faster in bed. Now, swamped by Brodkey's illness, they cling together in search of "a middle-class happy ending - for a while."
They visit Venice and Berlin, ramble around their country home, and just sit watching TV and holding hands in a kind of parody honeymoon, "collecting minutes." His tributes to her are roses complete with thorns; ruthlessly, he dissects the way his illness and her newfound "omnipotence" reshape the dynamic between them. No novel - not even Brodkey's legendary work-in-progress that he dined out on for decades - could more artfully portray the permutations of two mortals in love. With his own death through RTC sex, the sex- and death-obsessed Brodkey seems finally to have overcome writer's block with a vengeance.
Brenda L. Becker, a former staff editor and contributor to Travel/Holiday, is a medical writer and editor for consumer and clinical magazines and co-author of "Week by Week to a Strong Heart."
Pub Date: 10/20/96