Upper Valley author tells a fuller story in new book


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-15-2020 10:25 PM

Stories don’t always follow an easy trajectory from beginning to middle to end. Life doubles back on itself and what might look like a conclusion turns out to be just another plot point.

Here’s an example: In October 2016, Jeff Sharlet was in a small rented office in White River Junction, under the clock tower in the Hotel Coolidge, writing the final sentences of a book, a set of stories unlike anything he’d done before.

A few years earlier, Sharlet had been feeling burned out. He had moved to the Upper Valley in 2010 to teach writing at Dartmouth College, but he’d also continued writing stories for national magazines, and that work no longer felt vital. His father had had a heart attack in 2014, and Sharlet had been driving back and forth to Schenectady, N.Y., to help him out. He struggled with insomnia and had been having nightmares tied to his work. It was a dark time.

“I felt very tired,” Sharlet wrote about that period, “finished with a narrative that had sustained me and occupied my imagination for many years of writing books and for magazines. I’d begun to notice patterns in the stories I told, and then I’d accepted that the patterns were really formulas.”

But out of that darkness, Sharlet reinvented himself, dropping the structure of his early work. He began taking photographs and putting them on Instagram. The combination of words and images had set him on a new path, one that seemed about to reach a summit in October 2016.

It was then that Sharlet’s story took a turn: He had a heart attack, there in the office with his completed manuscript. The next day he had another. The darkness of his crisis, his insomnia, his father’s illness, it turned out, was still with him.

Now, more than three years later, Sharlet has recovered, the story has been rearranged and, in places, rewritten. The book, This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers, went on sale last Tuesday. It is his most personal book, and as a result, it is set largely in the Upper Valley. For Sharlet, the book represents both a departure and an exploration of what remains. It also moves his writing from the subject of faith to something even less tangible but more vital: salvation.

“I think the stories in this book are about people who live in darkness,” Sharlet said, adding that he had to learn to live there, too. “We don’t have enough stories,” he added, “about how you keep living with things that are not going to heal.”

‘Connective tissue’

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Sharlet, 47, made his name as a hard-charging journalist, a gifted writer who explored the intersection of religious faith and political power. He’s written or co-written seven books, most notably The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, published in 2008, and C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, which came out in 2010. When he was working on C Street, he said, he often wrote in 30-hour stretches.

“He always has been one of the hardest-working people I know,” Sharlet’s wife, Julia Rabig, said in an interview. “He just attacked everything with great gusto.”

Rabig and Sharlet overlapped for two years at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass., and worked together at the National Yiddish Book Center, also in Amherst, where Sharlet edited the center’s magazine, Pakn Treger. They now live in Norwich with their two children, Roxana, 10, and Malcolm, 6. Rabig is an assistant professor of history at Dartmouth.

In the long run, it was Sharlet’s success that led to his crisis, which was multifaceted. After coming to Dartmouth, he began to sour on the kinds of stories he was writing for national magazines. He wrote mainly about the religious right, investigating how faith and power were merging to create a potent political movement. He came to feel that much of what he was seeing and reporting was getting lost. The people, their lives in all their fullness — Rabig called it “connective tissue” — was cut so the stories adhered to the rhythms and, as Sharlet put it, formulas of magazine journalism. His curiosity about the people he met was bigger than the format available.

“There’s always a certain kind of violence in writing and editing,” Rabig said. “I think that had begun to wear on him.” He was perceived as a combative, political journalist, she said, and felt he and his work were often used as a “cudgel.”

At the same time, insomnia overtook him. In the course of his reporting, he’d had his life threatened, he’d seen real misery, and he was haunted by it.

“I thought that you just moved from story to story,” he said in an interview. He hadn’t thought that the impact might be cumulative.

“I was so dumb,” he said. “How did I not get that this would add up?”

Working the #nightshift

Confounded by his inertia, he took his notes to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Route 12A in West Lebanon. Still unable or unwilling to write, he started to let his deadlines slip and to turn down assignments.

In the past, to break up a creative block, he’d pick up some comic books. The movement of the action from panel to panel was the freest-flowing narrative. “You, the reader, put things in motion,” Sharlet told an audience at the Norwich Bookstore on Tuesday.

Sitting at Dunkie’s, he looked through Instagram, the photo-centric social network, and found some of the same qualities in the grids of square-framed photographs.

“The online assembly is the most magnificent documentary art I’ve found,” he writes in the book’s opening essay. He had often taken photographs as a part of his reporting, not for publication, but as part of his practice.

He started photographing the people who worked at Dunkin’ Donuts, using his phone. This Brilliant Darkness starts with an introductory overview, but the first story is about the night bakers and other people in the Upper Valley whom Sharlet encountered in his insomniac hours. He typed notes with his thumbs as they spoke to him about their lives, about the night shift, their shared darkness, and posted the photographs with short essays.

The fundamental experience of these people is loss. The man who’s leaving the night baking shift to work as a house painter and who lost his 2-month-old son. The young woman who was robbed at gunpoint while working another night shift in a different city.

As Sharlet expanded his field of vision to take in people in other places, in the Schenectady area, or who posted under the #nightshift hashtag, he found some of the same qualities. He wrote short essays based on a day’s Valley News, to accompany a photograph: “In Thetford, the reward for the police car arsonist climbs to $7,000. No takers.”

At the heart of the book are two longer stories, one about Charly “Africa” Keunang, an immigrant from Cameroon who was shot to death by Los Angeles police officers as he lay flat and unarmed on the pavement in the city’s Skid Row. Police and prosecutors diminished the victim as an addict with no family, but as Sharlet started talking to people who knew him, he found that Charly, as Sharlet calls him in the story, talked to his sister on the phone most days. Sharlet tracked down Charly’s mother. He presents readers with a whole person, a life, if a broken one, brutally and needlessly taken.

The other story is about Mary Mazur, who was living in a motel in Schenectady. Sharlet met her in a fast-food place and called her an ambulance, a caring gesture she resented. He went to visit her in the hospital, but she had checked herself out, into the middle of a snowstorm. The essay is titled “A Resourceful Woman.”

Again, Sharlet photographs her, listens to her story, but he presents it in an uncommon way. Journalism often tries to shine a light on social ills, and to ask, either directly or implicitly, “Why isn’t this being fixed?” Mary Mazur is poor, transient, says she doesn’t want to be called crazy, but Sharlet doesn’t reach out to state or local officials to see what can be done, he doesn’t make her an example, a poster child for a societal failure. He just listens to her and tells her story, and between them, and the reader, there exists, however briefly, a community.

At the Norwich Bookstore, Sharlet read from his story about Mary Mazur.

His comments and answers to questions ranged over the book’s varied terrain, which also includes pieces he reported in Russia and Ireland.

The book chronicles a series of transitions, from youth to middle age and parenthood, from an analytic, socially engaged journalism to a warmer, personal form. The stories from distant places are wrapped in the ones from close to home.

“This book can easily be charged with sentimentalism,” Sharlet told the audience, “and I accept the charge.”

Fatherhood and mortality

Sharlet’s father rebounded from his heart attack, and Sharlet saw how sick his father had been after he recovered and his sharpness returned.

The author, too, has recovered, and he sees now how ill he had been even before his heart nearly gave out.

“You would not have looked at me and said I was healthy,” he said.

He has lost 80 pounds, stopped drinking, stopped trying to work late and subsist on four or five hours of sleep a night, his routine before the insomnia kicked in. He runs. A part of the wall of his heart is dead, though, and the pain is never far away.

“My body chooses to express fatigue by replicating the pain of the heart attack,” he said. During the interview, conducted at the Dunkin’ Donuts, he drank decaf coffee.

His father’s recovery, among other events, reinforced for Sharlet how fragile all such recoveries are. Robert Sharlet died in October of an undiagnosed cancer.

Sharlet lost his mother when he was a teenager, also to cancer. She had wanted to see him graduate from high school, but she didn’t make it. Now, Sharlet looks at his own children and measures the same distance.

Fatherhood has fostered in Sharlet a sense of fragility that has influenced his work. In a story he says he couldn’t write, but that appears in the book as a text conversation with a friend, he wrote, “That’s why this book is so much about (my daughter). I don’t have the words: The fear that comes with the love that as soon as you have a child you can lose the child, that you can do all the right things and still it won’t matter.”

One of the photographs in the book is of poems Sharlet’s father had taped to a cabinet that held volumes of poetry. They included a poem spoken by Sharlet’s daughter when she was 3:

The night I was born

You were born

We were born

We were born together.

If This Brilliant Darkness is about any particular thing, it’s about seeing other people as kin, and ourselves as part of a community.

“ ‘We were born together,’ ” Sharlet told the Norwich audience. “That’s certainly the hope of this book, this book of strangers.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.