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A review of Darling, by Richard Rodriguez
by Sandra Swinburne
I want Richard Rodriguez to move in next door, into the little Victorian house with the varnished front porch swing and the hidden back garden nearly filled by a dogwood tree that shoots a whole galaxy of white stars each spring. I’m certain he’d like the blowsy pink roses that mark the side lot line and remind me of beach roses each summer, and the towering maple out front that becomes a torch each fall. He’d like that our common backyard neighbor is a Roman Catholic Church whose bells announce the Angelus each day. (I won’t let on that sometimes when those bells start up and I’m on my patio it feels like they’re clanging and banging inside my head and I groan “Jeeeesus!” in a non-devotional way.) And he’d grow to love the fact that the kitchen door of that homey heaven opens onto another spindle-wrapped porch, this one just large enough for two chairs and a small table where he and I would have coffee each morning.
I, a long-lapsed Catholic, want to talk to Richard Rodriguez, a devout Catholic, about his Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. In this essay collection he offers a look into what he’s tried to figure out about being alive and relations with “the God of the Jews, the God of the Christians, the God of the Muslims—a common God.” But I really care about his concerns because he also offers scenes from his lived-life (“I was the lonely gay brother with a fellowship abroad who lived in a bed-sit in Chelsea.”), and examines the state of his own soul (“I had nurtured so many small wounds inflicted on me.”). He also considers family, friends, public figures, and the way we now inhabit a technology-crazed speedball world—concluding that “life” comes down to doing the best we can through our successes and failures and feelings of emptiness because, as surely as if we were back in that other garden craving the possibilities in an apple, “flesh is a complicated medium for grace.”
There on the back porch we’ll talk about war in relation to the three desert religions that “claim Abraham as father.” We’ll nod over his observation that “[t]he power the old exert over the young is the power to send the young to war,” which recently resulted in ever-spooling news footage of people shouting, “Allah akbar,” and “young men writhing on gurneys” calling out, “Mama! Help me! Save me! Kill them! God have mercy!” In “Jerusalem and the Desert” he speculates about whether deserts “make warriors,” whether the desert’s utter insistence on emptiness forces one “to overcome the temptations of human nature” and cling to a God found in all-powerful, patriarchal images: “We are his people becomes He is our God. The blasphemy that attaches to monotheism is the blasphemy of certainty. If God is on our side, we must be right. [. . .]Certitude clears a way for violence.” I’ll tell him I’m a warrior-mother. I’ll let him know, if I’d been Sarah, I would have seen that look in Abraham’s eyes and hidden Isaac where Daddy with a knife could never find him.
Perhaps I could become another manifestation of the women Rodriguez has known and loved. He sings a song of praise for all those women: Oh, steadfast love from a mother who knew “human lives are doomed to surprise,” and therefore “appended Ojalá to every private leave-taking” as a way of saying “I pray it may be so—an exclamation and a petition”; his sister Helen who joined him in playing posh, going to upscale restaurants where he would call her “Darling” while “waiters circled us in magic”; Sisters of Mercy, with their Irish past scarred by evidence of cruelty to women and children, who earn his gratitude in America; suffragettes and latter day feminists who fought “to define themselves outside the familial structure,” inch by inch demanding rights and space in mainstream public life for a “nonfamilial sisterhood,” regardless of sexual preference and inclusive of homosexual men. And then, there’s his Darling who initially refused the term of address, who now holds the center of this collection, and whose intelligence as a sparring partner nudges him toward self-knowledge: “Because all of a sudden you were going to say—you did say—that I was pretending to be someone I am not. In fact, Darling, I was pretending to be someone I am.”
But most of all, I want us to talk about death. Inevitable, I know, yet increasingly mysterious as my own days taper towards that “one Sunday [when] we will not be here.” Situated in the “desert kingdom” of Las Vegas, “The True Cross” takes me to a hospice room where Rodriguez and his partner Jimmy visit their friend Luther who says his dead mama recently visited, but “said it wasn’t time yet.” His Darling, raised Catholic but claiming not to believe, lay near death during “one of the worst nights,” struggling over what she had done in life. Without judgment or speculation, Rodriguez offers the progression of her story: “In the morning, your friend said, you opened your eyes, though no one could enter them; you spoke as if from a trance. How wonderful God is, you said. How beautiful it is!” On another night the lamp in Rodriguez’s bedroom switches on while he sleeps and his “chest feels bruised, heavy.” He soon learns of his mother’s death in a nearby hospital.
I’ll tell Richard Rodriguez of my own mother’s death. I want him to see her in that white, white bed with her eyes closed, smiling as she says, “I can hear my mother singing like she used to when we sat in the fields.” The little girl she once was used to walk through pastures with her mother and sit while their cows grazed, making sure they didn’t stray. I ask if my grandmother, a Polish immigrant, is singing in English or Polish and she answers, “Oh, in Polish.” Three days later, after remembering and telling stories to her four grandchildren, my mother received the Last Rites of the Catholic Church while seemingly asleep. Less than two hours later, something changed and, without regaining consciousness, she smiled a shining smile that lingered for two or three minutes. Then her breathing became irregular and stopped.
From reading the essays collected in Darling, I know Richard Rodriguez better and I know myself better. Like him, I’m of an age to appreciate reckonings with beliefs and disappointments and, yes, with the whirlwinds of technology. I understand his lament in “Final Edition” over loving and losing daily newspapers situated in and differentiated by distinct place. I understand the loneliness and hunger for details that make one wish for a thick, local newsy paper each morning rather than a thin collage of the world: “We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus.” Oh, my eyes glazed over briefly while skimming the history of Las Vegas in “The True Cross,” but fine, sometimes friends go off on little tangents and we indulge them. That essay still stands as one of my favorites in the collection.
So, under a backyard canopy of green leaves and creamy stars, I’ll ask Richard Rodriguez if he knows the dogwood tree is accused of being the wood of the cross. We’ll talk about self-accusations of having squandered time and opportunities: “Bless me, father, I have lived my life in lowercase.” I’ll say I admire that he “studied so diligently to become a serious man,” knowing there was also something of a player within. I’ll remind him that, in spite of our various failures, we each repeatedly turn to the fragile tenderness in life—which makes all the difference. And then I’ll hope he calls me Darling.
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