Surprised by grace

Issue 2021, vol. 75

Review of Here the Dark by David Bergen (Biblioasis, 2020)

In the opening story of this collection of short stories and a novella, David Bergen’s narrator, an aspiring fiction writer, might be speaking for the author himself when he explains that, as a naïve 19-year-old too certain of his belief, he announced to his girlfriend his “inclination to save the world from sin.” She wonders whether his religious intensity might be a detriment to his writing and limit how he sees the world. In advance of their fall wedding, the young lovers part ways for a few months, she for an adventure in Europe, he to work a construction job in northern Manitoba. It is there, during “April in Snow Lake,” where his certainties are tested when he wanders into the wilderness and finds himself lost.

Bergen’s fiction in this book returns often to this theme of certainties lost, even while it holds onto the religious intensity of the opening story’s narrator. Defending his approach to his circumspect girlfriend, the young writer insists that “there was room for grace as well as sin in the world of novels.”  In this world of Bergen’s fiction, he often finds room to meditate on loss, sin and grace.

Lost, lonely men often occupy that room in Bergen’s stories. In the book’s second story, “How Can n Men Share a Bottle of Vodka?”, a depressed high school math teacher, recently separated from his wife, slurps vodka-spiked coffee from a Thermos while expounding to his students about Pythagoras or a mathematical equation to prove the existence of God — though his students don’t seem persuaded by the formula. In another story, “Never Too Late,” the main character is a rancher who has lived and worked alone for 20 years since his wife’s death. In “Leo Fell,” the title character finds himself living out of a hotel room north of Winnipeg, working a carpenter’s job, drinking too much, stewing in jealousy over his wife’s new partner and fumbling through awkward visits with his two children.

Sin and grace in these stories come tangled together, often when these lost and lonely people find themselves in surprising new territory — not unlike the wilderness that frightens but also saves that naïve writer of the first story. In several stories, that sin and grace is found in a new conversational and sexual partner, a new human connection that might save these lost men. For readers who want their grace in small and surprising doses, Bergen delivers often. Grace might come in a sip of straight black coffee, or from a stray dog that wakes a man in time to rescue his horses from a burning barn, or simply by surviving a fall from rafters.

In “Here the Dark,” the novella that concludes this collection, Bergen sustains his themes of faith and doubt but centers those concerns in Lily, a young woman who strains against the rules of her cloistered Mennonite community. Lily is a metaphorical cousin to the opening story’s young writer, for she too loves books, and she too is intemperate, and she too will be chastened by reality. She too will find herself lost, and whether she is saved by story’s end will depend on the reader’s sense of sin and grace and all that both frightens and astounds us about living in a physical and spiritual world.

In the passage that gives this collection its title, Lily watches as her uncle burns the “filth” she has been reading, then walks away, leaving her alone in the night, staring at ash, looking for a sign and being offered this: “And here the clouds like many dark sheep gone astray, and here the orange sun burning the world, and here the hare that hides from the circling hawk, and here the stretched singing of water-logged frogs, and here the light, and here the dark.”