Dark Reflections by Samuel R. Delany
Reviewed by Andrew Holleran
Washington Post Book World
Samuel Delany's new novel is a triptych -- a biography, in reverse, of a poet we see at three stages in life. On the first panel, a decrepit writer is dining with his young editor; on the second, a middle-aged groom searches for sex in a public restroom on his wedding night; in the third, a college boy falls in love.
The figure in all three scenes is a man who, whenever he finds photographs of himself, invariably turns them over and writes on the back, "The poet Arnold Hawley." More specifically, Arnold Hawley is a black, gay poet who lives in Manhattan's East Village. Dark Reflections is a sort of love letter to that part of town, when it sheltered the homeless and the hustler in a way it no longer does.
Beneath the physical and psychological squalor, the humiliations of poetry and poverty, lies a certain nostalgie de la boue. The 10-year-old bookworm raised by an intellectual aunt who prefers Berg to Webern (Arnold's favorite) ends up "a very fragile" old man who wonders when he enters the subway whether the smell of urine is coming from him or the station. He is also unable to forget the remark a famous white poet made when a poet of color was admitted to a literary society: "Who let the coon in?"
His consciousness, however, remains essentially childlike. The same wonder is bestowed on dinner ("her veal -- which really was awfully good") as on the darkness of a restroom swarming with homosexuals ("Yes, there were men in here!").
In previous books, Delany has shown himself to be comfortable with both gay and straight, black and white milieus -- not to mention various literary forms -- but the hero of this heartfelt, often funny book is triply alienated. Looking at a beautiful oak door painted over, he thinks: "Some things were ruined, and you had to let them go, which was how, actually, Arnold had always thought about his own sexuality." His only brothers are brothers: other gay black male writers. Yet sex with men terrifies him. Meanwhile, the psychotics, policemen, hustlers and suicides he meets are mere obstructions to be endured till the next poem, mercifully, arrives.
In the end, like Doctor T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby, he's nothing but a pair of spectacles. Yet Dark Reflections, while harrowing and bleak, is mainly tender -- a loving rendition of a place that gentrification has all but obliterated, a spot-on portrait of the East Village artist as a gay black geek.
Andrew Holleran's most recent novel is Grief.