Book review: In Ethan Hawke's new novel, an actor's marriage collapses

Divorce, despair and longing rear their heads in A Bright Ray Of Darkness by Ethan Hawke.
Divorce, despair and longing rear their heads in A Bright Ray Of Darkness by Ethan Hawke.PHOTOS: SAM JONES, ALFRED A. KNOPF

FICTION

A BRIGHT RAY OF DARKNESS

By Ethan Hawke

Alfred A. Knopf/Paperback/237 pages/$27.95/Available here

3 out of 5

"People think unrequited love is heartbreak, but it isn't," says a man in Hollywood actor Ethan Hawke's latest novel. "Unrequited love is a blissful state of melancholy. Watching love die: that's an ornery armour-piercing bullet."

Divorce, despair and longing rear their heads in A Bright Ray Of Darkness, a story of a film actor making his Broadway debut as his marriage collapses.

It is funny, witty and deeply human. Hawke, known for films such as Dead Poets Society (1989), Gattaca (1997) and the Before Sunrise trilogy (1995 to 2013), is also a highly competent writer.

The protagonist of his fifth book is William Harding, who has landed a role as Hotspur in Shakespeare's Henry IV. As he finds his feet on stage, he grapples with his separation from his rock star wife, who left him after he slept with another woman.

As Harding mopes around, finding occasional solace in the arms of other women, his friends shuffle in and out of scenes and give him a series of pep talks. "Embrace the great nothing," says one of Harding's friends, urging him, like a Zen monk, to dispense with the idea of self and individuality. "I think sex is like a prayer," croons the actress for Hotspur's wife in Henry IV, trying to seduce him in real life.

People do not have much sympathy for famous actors who are unfaithful to their wives, although Hawke does a good job at capturing, quite sympathetically, the complexity of human relationships.

The book has no shortage of pithy remarks ("boredom is a great aphrodisiac"), as well as vivid descriptions of emotional turmoil: "When I f***ed this other girl, it felt like somebody pulled a long dirty sock out of my trachea, and I don't want to put it back in. It's like I can breathe, and oxygen is getting back to my brain."

This novel would be a drag if the narrator were not such a likeable guy. Hawke - whose marriage to Uma Thurman ended amid rumours of his infidelity - is nothing if not self-aware, and deals us ample doses of schadenfreude.

We watch Harding bawl in the dressing room, quake at the fear of losing his voice and go under the knife to get rid of a painful boil in his abdomen "the size of a fat Florida orange".

In this novel, as well as Hawke's earlier literary forays, it is often hard to shake off the feeling of the author hovering over every page. You feel you are listening not to Harding but Hawke himself, or one of his movie characters, like Jesse, the unhappily married novelist in Before Sunset.

Writers shed their sickness in books, D. H. Lawrence once said, presumably speaking from experience. What does this mean for the reader? A Bright Ray Of Darkness may have been cathartic in the telling, but the pleasure the reader gets from it will likely hinge on how much she enjoys watching a bunch of narcissistic actors philosophise about love and life.

If you like this, read: Ash Wednesday (Vintage, 2002, $23.41, OpenTrolley), Hawke's story about two young lovers who go on a road trip across America.

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