One of the many affecting strangers in Jeff Sharlet’s new book of journalism and photography is Jared Miller, a heavily tattooed and baby-faced drug dealer in L.A.’s Skid Row neighborhood. Over just a few pages — which alternate between hastily captured cellphone snapshots and micro-essays — Sharlet sketches a portrait of Miller’s life. We learn of his stint in the Army where he got hooked on heroin; we hear about his estranged toddler son; we see pictures of Miller’s shirtless and vulnerable body, inked with birds and Bible verses and wicked grinning skulls.
For these few pages, Miller lives: a sweet kid whose potential dissipated into substance abuse and homelessness. And then suddenly he doesn’t live, dead from an overdose after trying to get clean. Sharlet’s portrait, we come to understand, is a eulogy.
Miller is just one of the many people whom Sharlet asks us to see in “This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers,” his powerful new work of nonfiction. The book covers a two-year period when Sharlet, an award-winning journalist who has written for Esquire and the New York Times Magazine, wandered America’s less-traveled corners after a professional and medical crisis. Having grown wary of his own journalistic writing, Sharlet began snapping unstudied smartphone pics of the people he met and writing paragraph-long essays to accompany the images, then posting both to Instagram.
The result is a collection of empathetic portraits of those enigmatic figures who haunt the edges of our vision: There are 2 a.m. bakers and midnight construction workers, junkies and junk store owners, lab techs and bartenders and other bored denizens of the dark hours. The book’s loyalties are with the disenfranchised — the rural poor, the runaways, those living with mental illness, and people who survive by doing sex work.
Sharlet is a reporter at heart. He presents his subjects’ stories in punchy and direct prose, then leaves it to us whether to raise eyebrows or take people at their word. He is never interested in passing judgment or offering a moral — these aren’t people as object lessons, just people. Sharlet wants us to see their faces and spend a moment with their tragedies and triumphs.
“This Brilliant Darkness” ventures outside the borders of the U.S. a few times. A long and devastating section on the lives of persecuted gay Russians is a retelling of Sharlet’s 2014 GQ article that won a National Magazine Award. A brief section set in Uganda is one of the book’s only missteps; it feels like the trimmings from a longer journalistic piece and requires more cultural context to land. But lapses like this are rare. As a whole, the book is a humane and harrowing document of people set adrift in the wake of American capitalism.
At times I wondered what to call the book — was it visual memoir? Guerrilla journalism? Social media critique? Yet while it sits somewhere in the world of nonfiction, “This Brilliant Darkness” most frequently reminded me of the short fiction of Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, writing that insists the lives of blue-collar laborers and heroin-addicted misfits are worthy of representation.
Which returns us to Miller, the doomed Skid Row junkie. He wants to show Sharlet his Facebook page, wants to prove he exists in the modern world. Miller scrolls and scrolls past people with the same name, then finally stops and smiles: “There I am,” he says.
Will McGrath is a writer and journalist in Minneapolis. His debut book, “Everything Lost Is Found Again,” won the 2019 Bernard J. Brommel Award for Biography & Memoir.
This Brilliant Darkness
By: Jeff Sharlet.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 320 pages, $25.