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“No one expected Mike to die young,” A.W. Barnes writes of his brother in The Dark Eclipse. “He was the good brother, after all…. I never thought I’d live to see my twenty-first birthday.” The story Barnes weaves in this memoir–a story of suicidal desires and success, of what drives siblings apart and could, at turns, bring them back together–is a lyric noir of family instability, personal revelation, and queer inheritance both genealogical and literary.
The Dark Eclipse reads in part as a queer bildungsroman and follows a narrative trajectory that is familiar to so many of us: growing up closeted in the Midwest before escaping to more liberal urban environs, first Washington, D.C., then New York and Rome. The carefully wound stories of sexual experimentation, shame, seroconversion, and eventual self-acceptance: they’re all here. But Barnes elevates this debut memoir above convention with found documents surrounding Mike’s suicide, which he uses to explore the interlaced yet distinct lives of queer brothers. These documents–the police report, the suicide note, and the autopsy, among others–anchor the chapters as they move lyrically from past to present, between the brothers’ lives.
Barnes reconstructs Mike’s young adult life as best he can, for Mike is something of a vanishing, unreliable protagonist. Mike all but flees their conservative childhood home, which was ruled by a stern Trappist novitiate-cum-gym teacher father. “Anyone who lives this way deserves to die this way,” Frank Barnes spits when he comes to pick up Mike’s body in the morgue. Barnes wants Mike’s suicide, if not this book itself, to read as a story about him and Mike against their father: “I wanted to believe that Mike belonged to me: two gay brothers comforting each other from having grown up in a conservative family.” But Barnes’ wish to connect to and create a new mythology alongside his brother isn’t possible, as Mike isn’t at all desirous of familial connection. In an earlier act of profound revelation marked through with equally profound cruelty, Mike outs both himself and Barnes in a letter he photocopies and mails to their parents and six siblings. “At Mike’s funeral,” Barnes writes, “his colleagues told me that Mike said he was an only child and that his parents had died when he was young.” This despite the fact that Mike had a brother who at the very least, loved him very much, and who repeatedly made efforts to become closer than Mike would allow.
At the end of the third chapter, Barnes slides Mike’s own memoir of sorts, a record of illnesses and doctors’ visits entitled “The Salient Facts of Patient Michael J. Barnes,” between two quasi-autobiographical gay literary classics: Agustín Gómez-Arcos’ The Carnivorous Lamb and Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story. To the extent that The Dark Eclipse fleshes out “The Salient Facts,” this placement might appear like a presumptuous bid for the former’s canonicity. But as Barnes, an English Renaissance scholar-turned-creative nonfiction writer, clarifies in a subsequent chapter constructed around his and Mike’s viewing of Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books, the gesture’s point is humbler: biographical and autobiographical writers all sort through facts and shape stories, turn raw data into narrative, and use words to build connective tissue for bodies that would otherwise disintegrate in memory or be lost to history. Our job, as Barnes beautifully demonstrates here, is to take the ashes of our lives—not only our lived lives, but our lives as readers, too—and sculpt them into a new art.
The Dark Eclipse: Reflections on Suicide and Absence
By A.W. Barnes
Bucknell University Press
Hardcover, 9781684480425, 176 pp.