In the Gloaming

The title story of In the Gloaming, this collection by Alice Elliott Dark, has become famous, first for being the subject of an HBO movie directed by Christopher Reeve, and secondly by being selected by John Updike for The Best American Short Stories of the Century. The story focuses on conversations between a young man who has come home to die and his mother. Ironically, although the word “AIDS” is never used in the story, nor is the boy’s homosexuality a thematic issue, it seems clear that if he had come home to die of anything else, the story would not have been filmed or so honored. Although it seems to avoid timely social issues to focus on the universal dilemma of facing death, the underlying AIDS/homosexual theme is what gives the story its tension.

Dark does manage to create some memorable characters in these stories, such as the dying children’s writer who is able to elicit the aid of her uppity neighbors to save homeless dogs and cats and the suburban mother who manages to get some subtle verbal revenge on a younger woman with whom her husband has had an affair. However, many other stories are plotted melodrama: in one, two sisters go on a trip up the Amazon River and encounter rape by the guide and sexual abuse by the stepfather; and in another, a man falls in love with a girl who just might be his own daughter.

Dark is best when she avoids such pulpy plots and simply lets her characters talk about the unspeakable mysteries of their lives.