Is the universe a place of miraculous coincidence and kindness, or a horrific vortex where human cruelty outweighs the ravages of nature? Richard Zimler, who plunged into the heart of darkness in The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, suggests in his second offering that in spite of much evidence to the contrary, the former may be the case. On the surface, The Angelic Darkness is a much less ambitious novel than The Last Kabbalist, a sophisticated and profound mystery. This one draws the reader into a non-traditional yet surprisingly formulaic romance...at least until the twist that sheds new light on the occult events of the narrator's life.
Set in San Francisco just before the AIDS epidemic, The Angelic Darkness begins with the collapse of Bill Ticino's marriage. Bill is miserable when Alex leaves, but not because he loves her; now that he's alone in the house, his childhood fear of the dark has returned, as have repressed memories of his tortured youth. So Bill looks for a tenant, and decides to lease his empty rooms to Peter -- an exotic man of Portuguese descent, with a pet hoopoe and a passion for flowers and bizarre objects. When Bill asks, Peter assures him that he isn't gay, but Bill suspects there's something queer about his housemate nonetheless. But he decides it doesn't matter, because Peter assuages his nocturnal fears and tells him stories of such power and beauty that they distract Bill from paralyzing memories, even as they force him to confront other uncanny events.
Soon Bill has learned to appreciate antique stores, and to experience clairvoyant dreams somehow connected to an artifact given to him by Peter. He also meets some of Peter's friends, who frequent the seediest side of town and seem to come from a distant place of mysterious tragedy. Having grown up listening to his abusive father's stories of military-sanctioned rape and murder, Bill feels a sense of kinship with these outcasts. It connects to his interest in the Inquisition and the Nazis, plus the prostitutes who frequent the Tenderloin district. As he struggles to understand the reasons for his philandering and to make peace with his remaining family, Bill is torn between his brother and ex-wife's straightforward prescriptions and Peter's mystical attempts to influence his thoughts.
Then Bill discovers Peter's deepest secret, which changes everything he previously believed about his rigid world and causes Peter to disappear suddenly from his life. Bill has wondered whether his tenant might be fundamentally unlike other human beings, but now he finds himself asking whether Peter is human at all. Could his friend be some form of angel...and why would such a creature have come to him, of all people? Can Bill learn from Peter's legacy how to accept the inner darkness he has always feared he inherited from his parents, or will his new self-knowledge destroy him?
The choppy ending, which never really answers those questions to the reader's satisfaction, makes a strange descent into happily-ever-after myth that borders on cliché. Suggestions of incest and rape become transformed through allegorical stories that have a kind of disturbing beauty. Overall, this book is rife with stereotypical characters -- the philanderer yearning to prove his manhood, the mysterious stranger who may be savior or demon, the hooker with a heart of gold, the lurking father figure, the tragic child of the streets. Yet none of them turn out as expected.
All of the characters of The Angelic Darkness live in between states considered normal, though the novel also suggests that nearly everyone has the potential for such half-lives. There's a doomed transvestite, a mature woman trapped in the body of a teenager, an icy heroine who melts only when her lover stops wanting her, an adult man who can't grow beyond childhood fears. They all struggle with the binaries by which so many people live their lives, trying to define themselves and others as good-evil, male-female, native-foreign, straight-gay, angel-devil. Most of the characters are in the midst of sexual and spiritual crises, and the ones who aren't, ironically, seem less soulful or at least less attentive to the complexity of life and the possibility of transformation.
Somehow, despite the betrayal of families, the brutality of wars and the violence in their own city, most of the characters can be healed merely by telling and accepting their own stories. Even so, such processes can be very painful, and not everyone survives. Though Bill has been searching for love and acceptance his entire life, he undergoes an excruciating rite of passage before he can learn to love and accept himself. In the midst of the process his senses are heightened, and he discovers possibilities he had previously closed off as inappropriate, ignorant or just plain wrong.
Whether Bill's encounter with the supernatural is real or a product of his own fevered imagination, its power regenerates and blesses him. If the ending of The Angelic Darkness leaves many loose ends, it reflects accurately the experiences of others who have been touched by inexplicable mysteries. Whether or not you believe in angels, this novel will give you an unsparing portrait of those trapped in darkness and a powerful promise of transcendence.
Green Man Reviews