Darling offers variations on all these themes, at the same time that it takes a leap onto the post-9/11 global stage. It is also a book about the desert. To an extent about place, its more profound preoccupation is the metaphysical and mystical desert, the cradle of the spiritual trinity of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “My faith in a desert God makes me kin to the Jew and to the Muslim,” he writes at the outset.
But to prepare himself and his readers for the journey to Jerusalem, he first makes an inventory of the Orientalist imaginaries of his mid-20th century youth. In Sacramento’s Alhambra Theatre he sees Otto Preminger’s rendition of Palestine (Exodus, 1960) through Paul Newman’s blues: “I became a Zionist at the Alhambra Theatre.” He reads Sir Richard Burton (not the actor but the British explorer), who goes native to smuggle himself into Mecca. In his adolescence there are more substantive encounters. He apprehends the momentous transformation of Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali, is moved by Malcolm X’s journey from Harlem to Mecca. …
Nothing can quite prepare you for what is to come, even if you’re familiar with Richard’s work. Since Days of Obligation and especially with Brown, he began to develop a lyrical yet radically digressive style that combines a syntactical elegance with narrative and referential leaps not just between chapters but within them as well. One second we are with the Catholic popes of the mid-20th century, a couple of paragraphs later Mark Twain makes it into the conversation, and in short order so do Fellini, Pasolini, and Bergman. From Jerusalem we head to Las Vegas; both deserts of course, but the initial wipe of the frame induces vertigo before he massages the material into thematic coherence. Or not. Sometimes the digression is just a digression, and sometimes a murky erudition remains just that.
Richard and I had a public conversation about his book a couple of weeks ago. It’s a dense, difficult read at times … but it rewards patience. Sometimes, he expresses something as simply and magnificently as the miraculous Pope Francis. To wit:
My brother is no less a good man for not believing in God; and I am no better a man because I believe. It is simply that religion gives me a sense – no, not a sense, a reason – why everyone matters.
The congregation does not believe one thing; we believe a multitude of hazy, crazy things. Some among us are smart; some serene; some feeble, poor, practical guilt-ridden; some are lazy; some arrogant, rich, pious, prurient, bitter, injured, sad. We gather in belief of one big thing: that we matter, somehow. We all matter. No one can matter unless all matter. We call that matter God and we are drawn to it every Sunday.
In an interview with Harper‘s, Richard describes the relationship between his religion and his writing:
I agree with Thomas Aquinas who describes the act of writing as a kind of prayer. Certainly as a person who writes every day it does seem to me that the energy, the inspiration, comes from outside of myself. Yesterday I struggled with this paragraph and nothing came. Today, the words come freely and almost seem to write themselves . . . so, like other writers, I come up with metaphors like grace and the muse and inspiration to explain how it seems that something outside my own efforts had produced the line I could not write by myself.
I don’t mean to become such a— I’ve never liked the word “piety.” And I don’t even like it when people say about me that I am a good man. I just, it makes me nervous — there’s a kind of domestication about such praise. For myself, I prefer the raggedness of my life of faith. I like to consider Andy Warhol a saint, one of the great saints of my lifetime. And I look for God in places like, you know, gay bars, where maybe no one else expects to find Him, in the dark.