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A Bright Ray of Darkness

Review Summary

Actor/Writer Ethan Hawke's latest novel is a well-written and immensely readable look at both celebrity, the demise of a marriage, and the theater.

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A Bright Ray of DarknessA Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on 2021
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Pages: 256
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

Publisher Synopsis:

The blistering story of a young man making his Broadway debut in Henry IV just as his marriage implodes--an utterly transfixing book about art and love, fame and heartbreak from the acclaimed actor/writer/director.
Hawke's first novel in nearly twenty years is a bracing meditation on fame and celebrity, and the redemptive, healing power of art; a portrait of the ravages of disappointment and divorce; a poignant consideration of the rites of fatherhood and manhood; a novel soaked in rage and sex, longing and despair; and a passionate love letter to the world of theater. A Bright Ray of Darkness showcases Ethan Hawke's gifts as a novelist as never before.
Hawke's narrator is a young man in torment, disgusted with himself after the collapse of his marriage, still half-hoping for a reconciliation that would allow him to forgive himself and move on as he clumsily, and sometimes hilariously, tries to manage the wreckage of his personal life with whiskey and sex. What saves him is theater: in particular, the challenge of performing the role of Hotspur in a production of Henry IV under the leadership of a brilliant director, helmed by one of the most electrifying--and narcissistic--Falstaff's of all time. Searing and raw, A Bright Ray of Darkness is a novel about shame and beauty and faith, and the moral power of art.

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William Harding, the protagonist of A Bright Ray of Darkness is a thirty-something-year-old movie star returning to New York to star in a Broadway production of Henry IV — playing Hotspur. It’s a role his director explains has ruined more than one actor, but while it appears it could take our protagonist down that road, it also serves as a center of focus and solace for him while, otherwise, his life is ripping apart.

Ripping apart, at least, in the form of his marriage ending. The triggering event? His fling while away in South Africa. While he ruminates throughout the book about not wanting to be divorced, about how he loves his wife and doesn’t want his marriage to end, one suspects his it was already in a state of demise.

William’s whining, flings, whiskey binging, and his lack of attention to basic self-care at times due to self-pity make him often a less-than-sympathetic narrator. But I’m OK with that; I’m also a whining less-than sympathetic character myself sometimes. His faults (as character faults usually do) also make him a more believable character.

Part of me wanted to roll my eyes at the whingeing of another privileged white guy who seemingly has it all: talent, money, fame. But celebrity makes his problems worse — it’s difficult to forget your problems when you live under the magnifying glass of the tabloids and when even you taxi driver knows the sordid details of your life.

What’s apparent is that William does love his kids and plans to stay an active part of their lives even as his life with their rock-star mother ends. The book, to some degree, explores fatherhood — partially through William’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his father and thoughts on what it means to be a man — does a man need to “wear a mask of masculinity” that becomes his face? Or will William leave his mask to the stage and decide on a more open approach to life?

What moved me, in particular, were William’s musings on the theater and his love — maybe I wouldn’t even call it love, but something more — for the art of acting. For a while, he can completely lose himself in his character, in his role, his audience, the “watchful eyes of God.” If we are lucky in life, we find something like this: something that absorbs our attention so absolutely that we can lose the “me” for a while into a greater whole.

And I appreciated his reflection that the “watchful eyes of God” for whom he is performing is not the critic but the average person. I remember being “forced” to read Shakespeare in middle school. Then, finally, I saw a play performed and became hooked. Shakespeare’s plays, after all, were for everyone, whether noble or groundling.

The book also has its funny moments. In particular, I loved William’s dresser (I need to hang a sign, sometimes, that says “No narcissistic bitches allowed!”), his mom, and the eccentric playwright he meets at a bar.

While I gave this book four stars as it’s not one I will likely continue to think about incessantly years down the road, the book is well-written and immensely readable.

And it makes me want to go watch a production of “The Henrys.” Right now.


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