Confessions from a Dark Wood

By Eric Raymond

Sator Press
December 2012

Reviewed by Gabe Durham


Nick Bray, the narrator of Eric Raymond's debut novel Confessions from a Dark Wood, is a modern Nick Carraway—up for banter, full of observations, yet destined to disappear when in the presence of a bigger personality. Upon the death of his father and the loss of his crappy job, Nick goes to work for a soulless capital brand management company helmed by Pontius J. LaBar, a dwarfish grotesque with a certain talent for intellectually bullying prospective clients into submission.

Raymond is a master of deploying consultant blather for comic effect and of finding the grotesque in the mundane. For this reason, the book is never surer-footed than when in the presence of Labar and his jargon surrogate, Randi, who is tasked with making clients feel out of their depths. Her first words to Nick are, "As you've probably intuited, we're in desperate need of someone with cross-channel capacities. Someone who can interpret those innovating digital modalities for our Web 1.0 clients."

LaBar is a man consumed by private demons, but unlike Gatsby, he is concerned not with hiding a former self (that metamorphosis is complete) but instead with beating a rival consulting business (that may or may not exist) by obsessing over the detail work of wowing clients. "Do you think we should arrive in the white-on-white Bentley," LaBar asks Nick before meeting with a big potential client, "or would separate Ferraris be more his style?" And when Nick ups the ante by suggesting they hire a driver for the occasion, Pontius delivers the closest thing he's got to a catch phrase: "I couldn't agree more." The emphasis, for LaBar, like the American one percenters his creator skewers, is always on "more."

Confessions is a book exploding with ideas, and one that would improve if it took all of its absurd conceits seriously. What if Nick's dad existed not only as a witty foil but as a challenge to Nick's assumptions about himself? What if the consequences of the company's internship program were more fully integrated into the story? What if the domestic terrorism plot was initially presented not in a punchline but in scene, eliciting Nick's natural terror and better setting up the poignancy of scenes ahead? I'm more inclined to be horrified if I'm asked to believe all this is truly happening.

To be clear, though: Give me an idea bomb like this one over sad polished prattle any day.

Confessions' twist on the corporate sell-out story is that Nick shows few signs of having had much soul to sell in the first place. He begins the book as an uploader and captioner of robot-on-woman porn, so we are not expected to weep for him when he defers vague dreams of a meaningful life to go work for LaBar. At least it can be said that when he screen-grabbed smut, Nick was broke.

Labar's wants—fame, money, winning—are far less complicated than Nick's, and it is a relief for Nick to judge his pitiful boss so that he may further avoid having to figure himself out. When LaBar is disrespected in a meeting with a celebrity client, Nick gleefully narrates, "Pontius' face flushed and his upper lip stuck to his teeth in the peculiar smile he used as the defense most-high against having a tantrum."

Nick maintains ties to the lost part of himself by befriending a near-broke poet, by chatting with the ghost of his dead father, and by harboring a beautiful underage terrorist who hopes to punish the United States for her brother's death, while in the meantime tattooing her body with the logo of every major American corporation. Nick tries to talk her out of her plans for martyrdom while resenting the extent to which she exercises her free will.

And in Nick's defense, his career as LaBar's lackey does seem preordained. We begin to learn about LaBar and his firm immediately, before the boss even enters the narrative, so large does he loom over Nick's consciousness. And when Labar does show up, the book does not slowly simmer us into the weirdness that is LaBar Partners Limited, but tosses us immediately into the fryer, creating the Shining-like sense that Nick has always worked there.

It's telling when, late in the novel, Nick prepares to step forward and give it all he's got in a speech before a roomful of bloodthirsty gamblers, the power suddenly goes out. God seems to be telling Nick at every turn: This is a story about the agency you lack, not the agency you've got.

The final chapter is a gut punch that perfectly combines the book's light/playful side and its crushing/tragic side, an ending that makes Nick finally stand out among the outsized characters around him. Still, it's hardest to leave behind LaBar, the inspiration for the book's sharpest lines and darkest laughs, and that's saying something in a book full of both.