As I write this, I have a hangover from staying up too late reading David Schickler’s new memoir, The Dark Path, in one sitting.
When he was a boy attending Mass with his family in Rochester, New York, David fantasized about a blonde, blue-eyed Catholic girl named Caitlin. When he went to the country club swimming pool he pined after Leslie, a brown-haired, amber-eyed beauty who was Protestant and therefore dangerous.
David was obsessed with girls, but he also dreamed of becoming a priest. He’d walk the dark path through the woods behind his house, hoping to hear the voice of God telling him what he should do with his life.
Attending McQuaid Jesuit High School here in Rochester, David’s loyalties were still divided, and they remained so when he went off to college. Needless to say, this greatly complicated his love life.
His newly published memoir, The Dark Path, is about David’s comic, convoluted, and often anguished discernment of whether he should become a celibate priest or forgo all that for another kind of life altogether.
Thursday evening at our local Barnes and Noble, David read excerpts from his book to a standing-room-only crowd that included his family and many of his lifelong friends. After living in New York City for a while, David returned to Rochester several years ago. In addition to his literary writing, he is a screenwriter (co-creator of the TV series Banshee) who commutes to Los Angeles and New York.
Years ago, I’d read and loved his Kissing in Manhattan. It’s a collection of strange and haunting linked stories about young singles in the 1990’s looking for love, living in a beautiful old building on the upper West side loosely based on the Dakota, where John Lennon lived and Rosemary’s Baby was filmed. (I’d been single in New York in the 80’s, which is partly why Kissing drew me in – David captured so well the big city headiness shot through with loneliness.) Last week, when I found out David was about to publish a memoir, I didn’t want to miss the debut.
David read a scene from The Dark Path about jockeying for space in the bathroom while fighting with his sisters, vying for the hair dryer and mousse as they got ready for church.
I thought the scene sounded a lot like how it must have been when my husband’s family got ready for Mass when he was a boy. I’d brought my husband along with me to the reading – he’s not an obsessed reader like I – and he was immensely entertained, as were all the men in the audience. David is a natural stand-up comic, a down-to-earth, regular guy who appeals to other regular guys. Women love him, too, of course. Look at his photo and you’ll see why.
Let me say a few words about Kissing in Manhattan before I tell you more about David’s memoir. I’ve never forgotten one particular story in Kissing, about a rich, handsome, deeply wounded stockbroker with a dark side. (Christian Grey comes to mind, but with a twist, and Schickler’s writing is orders of magnitude better.) Patrick Rigg can have any woman he wants, but instead of making love to them, he – well, he does something else. It falls to a priest, Father Thomas Merchant, to see if he can save Patrick from himself.
When Kissing was first published, it was an immediate sensation. David achieved literary stardom overnight. But when his father, a devout Catholic, read an early version of the manuscript, he’d been horrified.
“You think women will read your perverted stuff and let you baptize their babies?”
“But what about Andrew Greeley?” David asked. “He’s a priest and an author.”
David’s father pointed out that Greeley was a priest for 25 years before he began to write bodice-rippers.
In The Dark Path, David writes about the publication of Kissing. Yes, he became an overnight success, but there was fallout in his personal life. The Dark Path is about David’s crisis of faith; as well, it’s about what, exactly, a writer is supposed to write about. Truthful, authentic writers write about their obsessions, but what if you’re drawn to the dark stuff?
For that matter, to be a priest who truly ministers to those in need, don’t you have to acknowledge darkness (both inside ourselves and in the world) and help people grapple with it?
I think, for writers, it’s the stance you take. Parts of Kissing in Manhattan startled me, but I admired how David played out the tragic elements of his story. It was clear to me he wasn’t sugar-coating reality or condoning the grimmer, inexplicable aspects of human behavior. In my view, he offered readers glimmers of hope, a pathway to the light.
David doesn’t hold back in The Dark Path. He’s blazingly honest about his failings, vulnerabilities, struggles, and relationships with women. He’s hilarious, too. During his reading, he said he doesn’t write for therapy, he writes to entertain people.
The Dark Path is definitely book club material. In fact, it would be interesting to read Kissing in Manhattan and The Dark Path together. I believe these stories have something to say to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to those of other faiths, to agnostics and atheists as well. To anyone who’s grappled with the absurdities of life and their place in the world.
For more memoirs of the spiritual journey, see my little book list below.
MEMOIRS OF FAITH
The Dark Path, by David Schickler
The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong
The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris
Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott
The Crosswicks Journals, by Madeline L’Engle