WALK THE DARKNESS DOWN: Charles Rammelkamp is drawn into the struggles of characters in Daniel Magariel’s bleak but powerful novel

Walk the Darkness Down
Daniel Magariel
Bloomsbury Publishing 2023
ISBN: 978-1-63557-814-0
224 pages   $27.99 

Toward the end of Daniel Magariel’s poignant novel, Josie, an abused prostitute that Marlene and Les, the estranged protagonists, each tries to rescue in their own way, confronts the two: ‘My grandma used to call people’s pain their darkness,’ she tells them. ‘She’d say you got to abide with your darkness as if it were a scared child.’ Nobody else can do it for you is her message. ‘You got to walk the darkness down.’

There’s plenty of darkness to go around in this intensely emotional novel. Every family in the novel, including the manufactured ones, is dysfunctional. Les, whose mother abandoned him as a child, bonds with the commercial fishing crew that provide his livelihood, a close knit fraternity that nevertheless fractures. The men call Les “Stray,” like a dog without a home.

Marlene’s parents disown her when she ties herself to Les. They own property in the coastal town of Destiny that will one day be Marlene’s, but when Marlene and Les’s daughter Angie tragically dies, the family falls apart, and Les and Marlene, too, become estranged from one another.

Josie, who comes from a broken home (‘An abusive father, in and out of jail, each time serving longer and longer stretches. A mom too strung out on dope…’), takes up with her pimp Bill at a rundown motel called The Villas. He breaks her hand, gouges her eye. He declares they are soulmates, but it’s all a con game, the dominance of his will subjecting her. She is like a trained dog.

Bill and Marlene (whom he dubs “Deacon,” signifying her behavior toward the prostitutes as an almost religious servant) struggle for Josie’s allegiance. Who will own her soul? Just as Bill wants Josie for his own complex purposes, so Marlene wants her to be her substitute family, almost a replacement for Angie. In the end, Josie becomes her own woman.

While Les tries to find his sense of belonging – and with it, peace – with the scalloping fishermen, Marlene befriends the prostitutes at The Villas, taking first one and then another back to her apartment while Les/Stray is out on the Atlantic. This is not for sex but to feed and care for them, filling the empty, caring space left by Angie’s death. Eventually, Josie befriends Marlene. Bill’s own family, we learn, was also abusive, driving him to leave at a tender age and live by his wits.

The whole world is distraught, unbalanced, maladjusted. Magariel describes the process of whole towns falling apart, ‘the collapse of industry and the desperation of locals.’ Generations of skilled laborers lose their livelihoods, their skills becoming obsolete under the relentless push of “progress.” Fishermen lose the dignity of their work as their profession dies until ‘finally, the promise of tourism and real estate resurgence for single-story second homes’ replaces them once and for all.

Les’s best friend, a crew mate who goes by “John Wayne” because he is constantly quoting the Duke’s famous macho movie lines (nicknames are important both as a sign of affection and derision), is estranged from his wife Katherine. The victim? Their boy Ethan, Les’s godson. When John Wayne drowns in a storm at the end of the novel, Ethan’s situation becomes even more dire.

Nature itself is disordered, unhinged. Redwing blackbirds are falling from the sky. Horseshoe crabs are spawning early. Marlene and Josie read that ‘the American bullfrog has been notoriously absent from the southeastern United States.’ Climate change is real, catastrophic, and it affects everything in subtle and profound ways.

The challenge, indeed, is walking the darkness down, not succumbing to despair. All the characters, in their own way, with greater or lesser success, consciously or inchoately, give it a shot. Les and Marlene’s marriage, which began inauspiciously, despite the attraction, nearly collapses from the crushing guilt each feels about Angie’s death, Les for not being there when the “accident” occurs, knowing he might have prevented it, Marlene for being the parent in charge when it did happen, her negligence and impotence. ‘When a child dies, it’s always the parents’ fault,’ Marlene says when Les suggests that ‘Shitty things happen all the time. Random shitty things.’

Originally, Marlene fell for Les during one of his shore leaves. They met in a bar, felt an immediate attraction. They subsequently became involved, and then, when Les had gone back to sea, Marlene discovered she was pregnant. Les agrees to marry her but his reluctance is almost palpable. ‘You’ve been running away from me since the day we met,’ she accuses.

Later, when he is drowning in a storm, Les acknowledges his failure, reflects that now ‘He couldn’t give Marlene the apology she deserved,’ and he rues ‘all that misplaced fear that the women he loves were destined to abandon him – mother, daughter, wife….’

The true victim of their marriage is their daughter, Angie. At one point Les wins a stuffed dolphin for her at a carnival. Angie calls it Dolphy. She clings to Dolphy as to a life-raft, for emotional support in her uncertain young life. Dolphy becomes a father substitute whenever Les is away at sea, for the fragile child. The image of Dolphy is a potent symbol throughout the novel, haunting Les in his dreams with his inability to control his destiny. Dolphy represents the failures of both Les and Marlene as parents, haunting both with their sense of guilt, their inadequacy.

Magariel’s descriptions of the scalloping expeditions – Les/Stray’s home away from home – are detailed, vivid, and dramatic, like something out of Billy Budd or Moby Dick. The characters on the boat are violent, earthy. From Captain Alright and Booby, the senior seamen, to Stray, John Wayne, Hoover, China, and Monk, they all live on the edge, punishing themselves with physical exertion, taking drugs to relieve the pain. They endure extreme weather and long stretches at sea. They relish in the ‘punishing work and the self-annihilating exhaustion.’ Magariel describes their ordeals in graphic and affecting detail, imbuing their struggle with that elusive sense of camaraderie that motivates – and eventually betrays – all of these broken men.

Hoover, for instance, a heroin addict, accidentally put out his uncle Booby’s eye with a BB gun at the age of ten. Imagine the crushing sense of guilt he must feel. Imagine the longing all of these characters feel for that slippery fish of absolution, bonding.

‘We remain in a state of perpetual displacement,’ Magariel closes this astounding novel, ‘while always, in the end, returning home.’ Indeed, like Odysseus in Homer’s epic, Les and Marlene and virtually everyone yearn for the stability of family and home, their entire existence a struggle to achieve it.