“Book Review: The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing”
Reviewed by Nathaniel Drenner
A beautiful and brutal examination of intimacy, grief, and man’s relationship with nature
Wildness—not wilderness—is sometimes the draw of remote places. Untamed nature and the creatures that live there can feel awfully, disturbingly familiar despite their distance from the everyday. This unsettling kinship is the backdrop of Joseph Fasano’s The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing.
The novel is a story of love and loss, of a man coping with grief and all the darkness that comes with it. The mountains of British Columbia serve as the primary setting, a place that takes on extra significance after the death of the protagonist’s wife.
Long familiar with these wilds from hunting trips with his father, the unnamed narrator returns with his own son to track and kill an elusive mountain lion. The journey is an attempt to retreat and connect, to mourn his loss and to be a better father than his own was. Yet when the hunt, too, turns tragic, the narrator is left struggling to survive, physically and emotionally.
“When one wakes in the woods, he wakes to singing. Crow song. Raven song. Bird song stirring in the marrow as it must have stirred in the first hunters, stirring them to the hunger in their own bones, stirring and showing them what it is to fly and fly toward the earth’s wild bounty and never arrive.”
The plot, themes, and characterizations belong to a long tradition of stories about man and nature: Conrad, Crane, Hemingway, take your pick. And it is a story about man, specifically. The narrator’s personal history is traditionally, brutally masculine; his late wife serves solely as a foil and muse. Though it falls into tropes of gender, the novel gives us a layered exploration of a type of male psyche: the paradoxical blend of stoicism and sensitivity. The narrator is aware of the danger of raw anger, knows the limits of emotional numbness, treasures gentleness and intimacy, yet struggles to find balance. He is one of the things in a dark, wild world where loss is the only guarantee.
Familiar as these elements may be, what sets this novel apart is its style. Fasano was a poet before he was a novelist, and it shows. The rhythms and sounds of his sentences enthrall; the imagery and metaphors provide a lush, visceral experience. The effect is meditative, hypnotic—primal, even as the style is elevated, sublime.
Some passages, however, are maddeningly ambiguous. Imbued with introspection, paragraphs can spin into excess as the narrator trudges through dense forests of thought. When you “get it,” the language is beautiful, resonant. When you don’t, it can frustrate—or worse, come off as overblown and unclear. This is an isolating experience that may match the narrator’s own struggle to comprehend the world around him. For all the philosophical musings the text presents, I suspect we are meant to understand the ideas more with our gut than with our head: deep feelings processed as deep thoughts.
“Alone in the woods now I listened for the wind, the snow, the call of the cat in the darkness, and I knew only that although we are given the world, we are not given the grace by which to know it. And that such ignorance can hold us, at times, like no knowing can. That it can make us feel known. That there are times, between one moment and another, when we call out in our way to one another, times in the terrible formlessness of the darkness when the shape of another’s unknowing is the shape of our own unknowing, and those times of our belonging we call love.”
It is a slow and contemplative read, laden with imagery. Fasano immerses us in the mountain atmosphere with impressive detail and knowledge of the natural world. Still, the plot includes stark, brutal action.
As the narrator falls deeper into danger, despair, and revenge, he becomes obsessed with hunting the mountain lion, and resorts to sometimes unthinkable deeds to survive. The evasive cat is itself a character, with a heart as wild and tumultuous as the narrator’s own. His affinity with the creature—whether a coping mechanism or a philosophical truth—conveys a wild nature that is alternately scary and beautiful, isolated and connected, strong and fragile. The narrator’s recognition of the animal becomes key to his own development.
While events play out, flashbacks relate fragmentary memories from the time his wife was alive. She is a counterbalance to the narrator, a reminder of the joy in the ephemeral—the feeling that gives him life, and the feeling that gives him pain. Other memories detail episodes with his son, and earlier times in his life. The information can be difficult to piece together, but it is crucial to understanding the character.
“I knew how it was with me: just as something can lead us into temptation, where only we, alone, can say no to it, something can lead us, trembling, into the joys of the world, into the troubling country of abundance, where only we, each of us alone, can say yes to it.”
Beyond loss and grief, Dark Heart is a novel of revenge, memory, and intimacy, of the need to love and the vulnerability of loving, of facing the dark side of ourselves that seems both strange and familiar. Like a good poem, any attempt to define this novel’s subject matter does not do it justice. It must be experienced on its own terms, through its own language.
For those who enjoy a metaphysical inward journey, Fasano’s language captures elusive moments of insight, sometimes slippery in their meaning, yet often profound in their effect.
Publisher: Platypus Press
Genre: Literary Fiction / Nature
Print Length: 198 pages
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