“Darling,” by Richard Rodriguez, presents itself as a “spiritual autobiography.” The writing is as personal as billed, but these 10 essays, some previously published elsewhere, do not form a single, continuous story. Instead, they follow the Rodriguez method, which is to examine major dimensions of American society in the first person with a deeply humanistic voice that is politically hard to place.
Rodriguez’s past collections, issued at decade-long intervals, addressed class, ethnicity, and race. Religion is a different matter. A social category, to be sure, but one that engages individual belief, doubt, and choice. This is fertile and vulnerable terrain — in a good way — for Rodriguez, who is as ardently Catholic as he is proudly gay.
The trigger is 9/11. What jars him in the horror of that day is the zealotry of the terrorists
and his own sense of Abraham-ic implication: “I came to the realization that the God I worship is a desert God. It was to the same desert God the terror-
The connections rush in: the shared biblical roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; but also the Crusades, Moorish Spain, and the Alhambra Theatre in Sacramento, built in 1927 “to resemble a tall white Muslim fortress,” where Rodriguez watched Roman dramas and, through the eyes of Paul Newman in “Exodus,” “saw Palestine from the sea.” Omar Sharif, Cassius Clay, Pope John Paul II, and Rodriguez’s mother, whose favorite Spanish expression, “ojalá,” had hidden Arabic roots — all these and more appear within the first chapter.
The essayist’s craft of spotting ties amid disparate material, the excavation of patterns and signs, unfurls in “Darling” at high-wire levels of daring. It doesn’t always work — some passages feel like non sequiturs, others like cataloged erudition — but the phenomenal writing carries the day. An anthropologist in Afghanistan “passed through the molars and incisors of remote mountain villages.” Picasso’s female portraits are “divided into competing arrondissements.” A man whom Rodriguez meets in Israel is “made entirely of Jerusalem. You can’t tell him anything.”
His report from the Holy Land, where he confronts the paradox of obsessive segmentation, policed by walls and prejudices, among cultures with common ecological and spiritual roots, stands on its own as a fine piece of travel writing. It brims with awe and frustration.
From this pilgrimage, Rodriguez moves to an allegory of calvary, with an essay on the agony of a friend who is dying of AIDS-related illness in a hospice in Las Vegas, a new desert Golgotha. In the subsequent pieces, Rodriguez also queries, obliquely, the ideas of confession and sainthood, the post-lapsarian condition, and problems of belonging and belief.
A lament on the decline of newspapers in San Francisco is the exception: It feels out of place and ordinary. At the opposite end is “Transit Alexander,” a piece that feels opaque but exalted, and invites decoding like the utterances of a mystic.
Despite its opening epiphany, this is not a political work — Rodriguez proposes no solutions (though he takes stern swipes at atheism, including that of fellow public intellectuals like the late Christopher Hitchens). Rather, he offers an efflorescence of subtle questions that may be more useful than the blunt ones that dominate today’s media and public conversation.
The most stunning essay here is the highly personal one that gives the collection its title, in which Rodriguez traces his own use of the term “darling” as an expression, but also evasion, of love. The device feels slender but is superbly resilient: It underpins a circuitous but ultimately heartbreaking elegy for a female friend who has died and also a raw exploration of loves impeded.
One of those loves is for this woman, who had once hoped in vain to become Rodriguez’s lover. But the essay is a love song as well for women in general, whose struggles he believes helped create social space for homosexuals, and a bittersweet paean to the church.
This last love is the most stubborn one of all. “The Church gives me more than it denies me,” Rodriguez writes. “I stay in the Church because it is mine.”
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at email@example.com.