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In This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers, award-winning journalist Jeff Sharlet combines words and photographs to wade into the murky darkness of poverty of the ordinary, extraordinary, and spiritual varieties. A document of two years of travel between his father’s heart attack and his own, Sharlet captures the nightshift lives of everyday people, living anywhere from the overcrowded streets of Los Angeles’s Skid Row, to the rural mountain towns of New Hampshire, to Kampala, Uganda and Dublin, Ireland. In the process, he weaves together these people’s stories with his own—that of a man plagued by insomnia, comforted by the company of strangers. “This is a book of other people’s lives,” Sharlet writes, “lives that became, for a moment—the duration of a snapshot—my life, too.”
Through Sharlet’s riveting prose, we hear boldly human testimonials from hustlers and addicts and thieves, from the homeless and the brutally warehoused, from an illegal abortionist, a would-be exorcist, actual and very well-armed fascists, and Russia’s queer underground—building on Sharlet’s National Magazine Award winning story for GQ, “Inside the Iron Closet.” The heart of the book is the under-told story of Charly “Africa” Keunang, an unarmed Black man on Skid Row pinned to the ground by police and shot through the heart because he would not take his tent down.
This Brilliant Darkness is a dazzling, genre-defying work, blending memoir with immersion journalism, fusing late-night philosophical musings with an intimacy akin to the work of James Agee and Teju Cole. With radical empathy and striking candor, Sharlet brings attention to lives lived on the margins of society: the elderly, the homeless, the mentally ill, the disabled. Through these illuminating and thought-provoking encounters, Sharlet depicts a society full of suffering and regret—but one which when observed, casts a glimmer of light.
Jeff Sharlet is associate professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College, and the New York Times best-selling author of The Family, recently made into a Netflix documentary series, C Street, and Sweet Heaven When I Die. His work has earned numerous awards, including the National Magazine Award and the Outspoken Award.