I almost decided not to write review of any kind for Samuel Delany's most recent novel, Dark Reflections. Not because I didn't like it---I loved it. But it came out about a year ago and received pretty favorable reviews in both the Washington Post and the New York Times. But the more I dug around for opinions on the book the less I found. Review mags like Rain Taxi, which usually do a good job at picking out works like this, pretty much ignored it. And with the exception of a thoughtful review by Steven Shaviro, most of the comments online are by sf fans who are peeved that it's not an sf novel.
In short, the novel is a biographical portrait of Arnold Hawley, a gay, black poet living in NY City. It's structure is mildly experimental; the novel is broken into three sections, each exploring a different period of his life and moving backwards in time. Each section could easily work as a strong novella, but together they create a moving image of a unique man.
The opening section focuses on his late adult life. Although I could paraphrase it for you, it's probably best to have it laid out in Delany's own words:
In 1987's rainy October, when squirrels stopped, stared, then sprinted along the bench-backs away from the kids with the earrings, combat boots, and dog collars, who for more than fifteen years now had been hanging out in Tompkins Square Park, Arnold's sixth book of poems, Beleaguered Fields, won the Alfred Proctor Prize---an award given once every three years that concerned a small circle of New York poets and men and women of letters. In the late afternoon of the day he received the news, as he walked home through the park, a wind gusted among the wet leaves, for moments making a rising roar, like the cheer of thousands.....Arnold smiled....acknowledging playfully the world's recognition. (3)
The Proctor Prize allows Arnold to quit the civil servant job he hates and take a teaching position at a small college---where he happily works with a small cut in salary. The section moves forward to his retirement years later, and we see Arnold struggle with the odd hypocrisies of the publishing world when he's asked to write a blurb for a young up-and-coming poet putting out work he doesn't respect.
The second section focuses on Arnold's life in his thirties, and his brief marriage to a suicidal homeless woman. The third section moves back further to his late twenties and his early days in college fighting with the realization that he's gay. We see some powerful scenes where he's disturbingly attracted to a well hung but mentally challenged man. Against all better judgement Arnold follows his desire into a run down section of New York, but when he's finally given the opportunity to explore his sexuality he runs away.
Although poetry isn't quite the focus with these other two sections, writing is still a vital part of the story. He meets his wife while writing a poem on a park bench, and we see some lovely moments of his life when he's inspired to write. Much of his daily struggle centers around finding that balance between making a living and following his dream to publish brilliant poems. Arnold is a man who lives, breathes and loves poetry and, although Arnold is very different from Delany, it's hard not to think of Delany himself at these moments.
As much as sex is a part of this novel, Arnold is confoundingly asexual. A number of Delany's books, Hogg especially, are noted for their strong pornographic scenes. Dark Reflections features pimps graphically pitching their wares, poetic descriptions of homo-erotic photography, and a number of other bizarre situations. The moments he gets closest to experiencing sex, something outlandish occurs that puts an end to it: his wife commits suicide, he thinks he's caught in a blackmail scheme, etc, etc. And while we know as readers that Arnold has had sex, we never actually see him having sex. This seems important to the novel somehow, although I'm not quite smart enough to figure out exactly why.
One thing at the novel's core is how Arnold continually explores his identity as a gay, black poet and questions what it means. He's a black man who enjoys country music, and gay man who doesn't pursue sex, and a poet who explores themes beyond the normal bounds of what it means to black and gay. It makes Arnold more than a character; it makes him a human dreaming the dream to be what he can despite the obstacles thrown in front of him. It's this thread of the novel that ties it together, makes everything work, and brings what's probably Delany's most accessible novel in years.
Tor or any other major SF publisher would likely pull a dumptruck full of money to Delany's home if he ever broke down and wrote the SF novel fans of Babel-17 and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand clamor for. Instead what we get is the novel Delany wanted to write, and a beautiful one it is.