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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1932

Despite an on-and-off homosexual orientation that resulted in his being actively gay in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Harold Brodkey had little cause to suspect that the sudden onset of severe breathing problems in the spring of 1993 had anything to do with AIDS. Brodkey abandoned his gay lifestyle in 1977 and, according to what he reveals about his sexuality, did not slip back into it even momentarily at any time after that. Married to novelist Ellen Schwamm, Brodkey was some sixteen years past his last homosexual encounter when he fell ill and was rushed to the emergency room of a New York City hospital.

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To call This Wild Darkness merely a memoir is to misclassify it. Much of the book is a philosophical discourse on various aspects of Brodkey’s life and career. In this book more than in any of his other writing, Brodkey has sketched himself in penetrating detail, presenting a self-analysis based upon his understanding of his own psyche and of the effects his past life had on shaping his psyche when it was in its most formative stages.

A close reading of the book by anyone schooled in psychoanalytical criticism will reveal a great deal about Harold Brodkey that he did not reveal directly in its pages. This, of course, is true of almost any book. In This Wild Darkness, however, it seems particularly relevant because it helps to explain some of the conundrums that have haunted the Brodkey myth and legend as it has grown through the years.

Many of the biographical details with which Brodkey has infused the pages of this book have been told and retold in such earlier Brodkey books as First Love and Other Sorrows (1957), Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988), and The Runaway Soul (1991), his novel that was more than a quarter of a century in the making.

Or is it The Runaway Soul that took so long to write? One can never be entirely sure with Brodkey. The novel for which he received a substantial fortune in publishers’ advances over nearly thirty years was tentatively titled Party of Animals. The sheer bulk of The Runaway Soul, which weighs in at 835 pages, suggests that this was the manuscript on which he worked for so long simply retitled.

Brodkey’s only other novel, Profane Friendship (1994), was written in 1992, when he spent the better part of a year in Italy as a guest of the city of Venice. It focuses on a homosexual love affair and is his most overtly gay publication, although gay elements creep into much of his other writing, including his frequent pieces in The New Yorker, to which he was a regular contributor for more than three decades.

In This Wild Darkness, Brodkey writes sensitive, often touching, always appreciative encomiums to his wife, to whom he was obviously singularly devoted. He reveals her reaction to his illness, her initial concern that she might have contracted AIDS through him, her emotions at being found to be HIV-negative, her absolute devotion to him throughout his illness. This part of the book is most affecting and unquestionably sincere.

Brodkey truly cared about Ellen Schwamm and she about him. They had both sacrificed in order to marry, she particularly in that she had to leave an earlier marriage and all that went with it in order to become Brodkey’s wife. In the portions of this book that concern Ellen, Brodkey deals frequently with the question of survivor guilt, a topic that Walt Odets explores fully in In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS (1996).

Odets likens the plight of HIV-negative people living in areas with high concentrations of gay people who are HIV-positive to that of people who have survived the Holocaust or some other overweening tragedy. Similarly, Brodkey writes of Ellen, “She cried when she learned that she was clear of the virus; she said it depressed her to be so separated from me.”

Later in his narrative, he writes that Ellen said, “Oh, I don’t want to be clear. I want to have it, too.” Such a reaction, while it may seem strange to anyone who has not been intimately involved in a situation like this, was common among the HIV-negatives with whom Odets dealt daily in his practice as a psychotherapist.

Brodkey, during the frequent bleak periods that dogged him as the disease progressed, at times contemplated suicide. During these dark moments, Ellen unfailingly said that if he chose that option, she, too, wanted to kill herself, to die with Harold, to die like Harold.

Ellen would, in every sense, be categorized as the caregiver type of person. As Brodkey reveals her, she is the sort who constantly serves other people. His illness offered her the opportunity to experience a culmination of this part of her temperament: her husband, the man she loved, needed continuing and increasing care. She remained beside him constantly during his illness, having an extra bed brought into his hospital room during his confinements so that she would never have to leave his side.

Brodkey writes in detail about Ellen’s strength as a mother. She married him when her son was young. The boy developed a slow-growing cancer, and she received no help from anyone in the life she had left behind to marry Brodkey. She married him in part because he had not had a mother of his own, his biological mother dying when he was about two. Ellen viewed herself as the wife- mother even before AIDS became a part of their lives. This was her most natural role.

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Despite early brushes with homosexuality that began when Joe Brodkey, his adoptive father, took sexual liberties with him before he had reached puberty and that continued into adolescence, Harold Brodkey never came to grips with his homosexuality nor does he come to any accord with it in the pages of this book. Indeed, what emerges not too subtly from his subtext is a virulent homophobia that he never acknowledged but that shows itself in numerous small ways throughout the book.

To begin with, Brodkey obviously regards homosexuality as something negative rather than as a condition that is natural for some people and that is neither negative nor positive. As a fact of life, it is as natural and as neutral for some people as blue eyes or brown hair. Brodkey never considers the possibility that with or without Joe Brodkey’s liberties, he might at some point in his life have slipped into homosexuality. Rather than accepting this possibility, he opts to blame Joe Brodkey for wanting to molest him at an early age.

Yet Brodkey has his revenge. When Joe is dying and Brodkey, assuming the role of caregiver, is for him the same sort of lifeline that Ellen became for the ailing Harold Brodkey, Harold tells the dying man, whom he calls lecherous, that he cannot touch him—not even a handshake—unless he behaves.

He writes, as he begins the paragraph that tells of this episode with the dying man, “Then, I killed Joe Brodkey.” He immediately lets himself off the hook for this self-confessed act, however, by saying that he did not know that it would kill the old man to talk with intelligence and finality.

In this particular passage, Harold Brodkey’s monumental ego and legendary self-absorption scream out, revealing a man who probably did not consciously intend to reveal himself in this way: Harold as the reluctant, virginal figure; Harold as the intelligent, exploited caregiver. This is the same Harold whom Brodkey describes in writing about his fictional, youthful self, Wiley Silenowicz, in The Runaway Soul as “a bouquet on two legs.” People who accept homosexuality as natural for some people do not find it necessary to ascribe blame for its occurrence. The young Harold’s adoptive mother undoubtedly fondled him during his childhood, yet Brodkey does not find it necessary to attribute his heterosexual side to this fondling.

Lest readers not yet be convinced of Brodkey’s homophobia, they have only to read further. Toward the end of the book, Brodkey writes about Charles Yordy, a schoolteacher ten or twelve years younger than Brodkey, whom he met in a homosexual bath house around 1970. Charles had a background not unlike Brodkey’s. He was adopted and was at this point the caregiver for his ailing foster father.

Before long, Brodkey was living with Charles and another apartment mate, Douglas. Brodkey makes this arrangement sound like something he did because he needed a quiet place to work. In commenting on their situation, Brodkey writes, “I would f—— them occasionally, usually one by one, and do romantic’ things. The sexual stuff was gravy; what I needed was protection while I worked and tried to make sense of the past and other lives.”

In this and other similar passages, Brodkey comes across as sexually indifferent, as the active sex partner, never as the recipient, and in this denial that he is anything other than the sexual male in need of any satisfaction he can get, Brodkey projects a distinct superiority.

One gets the sense that Brodkey could not accept himself as being gay, but that he viewed himself merely as a sexually needy male taking what he needed until the right woman, in his case Ellen, came along. He mentions no sexual reciprocity on his part.

One then might legitimately ask, “Why did he patronize the gay bath houses rather than bordellos that offered female sex partners?” The subtextual denials that he is inherently homosexual will not ring true to anyone familiar with and active in the gay world.

Despite such caveats, one must acknowledge the splendid writing that characterizes much of This Wild Darkness. Brodkey shows what it feels like to receive a death sentence from the medical community but still to have that community urge one to fight on, to lick the pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and the other opportunistic ills that plague patients whose immune systems have been severely compromised. Throughout the book, often through the use of striking metaphors and similes, always through his carefully crafted sentences and exacting word choice, Harold Brodkey demonstrates how distinguished he is as a writer and as a man of letters.

Also, despite the specter of death that hung over the Brodkeys as thick as the smog over Mexico City, both Ellen and Harold were in the end happy, indeed were happier perhaps than they had ever been. Ellen declares that the final year was one of the happiest times of her life. Perhaps in caring for a man to whom she was completely and selflessly devoted, she enacted most fully the caregiver role that she had so naturally assumed at other times in her life.

In his final entry dated late fall, 1995, written probably less than two months before his death, Brodkey wrote that he felt well and that during the past week, in some unaccountable way, he had felt happy. Granted, his illness resulted in emotional peaks and emotional valleys. At one point, when the very nadir had been reached, Brodkey, considering suicide, commented that illness is a bore, rather like being trapped in a John Updike novel.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. November 3, 1996, p. D15.

Chicago Tribune. November 17, 1996, XIV, p. 6.

The Guardian. December 12, 1996, II, p. 9.

Houston Chronicle. November 24, 1996, p. Z22.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIV, August 1, 1996, p. 1114.

Library Journal. CXXI, October 1, 1996, p. 88.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 20, 1996, p. 15.

New Statesman and Society. IX, November 22, 1996, p. 47.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, October 27, 1996, p. 9.

The New Yorker. LXX, February 5, 1996, p. 52.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, August 12, 1996, p. 68.

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