Review: DARKMOUTH STRIKES AGAIN by Jay Ponteri
Review by MATT POSKY
On the page Jay Ponteri comes across as a deeply unhappy man with common but ferocious demons that he needs to have exorcised immediately. His debut work, Wedlocked: A Memoir, was a stylized and frank exploration of his own monogamous relationship. Despite it being about a marriage, the text rarely ventures beyond the confines of Ponteri’s own thoughts and feelings. It was depressive, earnest, blunt and I enjoyed it for those very reasons. So I was delighted to hear that he might possibly inch his way into fiction with Darkmouth Strikes Again.
Released as part of a trio by Future Tense Books (along with Chelsea Hodson’s Pity the Animal and May-Lan Tan’s Girly), Darkmouth is billed as a bleak lyric essay focused on examining the big sad issues that make up the human existence. It’s supposed to be poetry, fiction, truth, analysis, and memoir. That is an incredibly tall order for a thirty-two page micro-book that you can get through with a single cup of coffee. My first reaction was that of immediate disappointment, followed by seven minutes of stomping around my apartment cursing Jay Ponteri and his seemingly lazy collection of leftovers being passed off as a book. Annoyed, I threw the tiny cardboard title into a corner and didn’t bother touching it again for several days.
When I finally did pick it back up, it was with a more open mind and different expectations and that is what changed things. The meat of Darkmouth is memoir and musing, so what brief portions of apparent fiction that are made available remain somewhat unconvincing as fantasy. Any instance of third-party narration automatically leaves the reader wondering if the author is simply talking about himself again, which is likely the point. Nothing functions as a cohesive narrative, save that Ponteri is clearly suffering through the days while working on it. With that in mind, the disgust in a lazy collection of leftovers gave way to a commiseration of just how unpleasant the writing process must have been through Darkmouth Strikes Again. Forget whatever angst laden and clever pitch the publisher had for this book, this piece is about being supremely unhappy and it is incredibly adept at capturing all of the little moments and thoughts that occupy depression. The author explains, “Shame obscures or destroys other possible pictures of self—the self as lover, as beloved, as generous friend and caretaker, as capable thinker and doer and maker receptive to wonder and beauty—thus eliding present and future possibilities for actual intimacy with another person and for meaningful consideration of self and others.” This entry could function as an unofficial forward to the rest of the text.
Occasionally, it does seem like a running list of ideas for Ponteri’s next work. Some paragraphs are literally quotes and lyrics from songs (which he references in the notes) or collections of metaphors he was fussing over separated into “available” and “unavailable metaphors.” These sections come across as potentially weak primarily because they are so overshadowed by the more profound bits surrounding them. But that’s a risk any author takes when writing in this particular format. These inadequacies are not enough to severely diminish the overall experience of spying on a man’s most personal unhappy thoughts. For every page that made me furrow a judgmental brow, there were two that I fell into and one that I would whisper to myself in the hopes of not forgetting it.
Many of the events and feelings the author chooses to share are upsettingly easy to identify with, especially considering the bleak subject matter. He samples the monotony of daily life before succumbing to fantasies about strange women and the intense shame that follows. Newly disgusted with himself, he becomes less functional and more fixated on everything that might be wrong. You can imagine Ponteri slowly scrawling these words down on a note pad, incapable of getting out of bed due to the depression. His young son coming in every couple of hours to chat and offer some of the few joyful lines of the book, before the author settles back into obsessing over his own absence of a sex-life, his crushing debt, or his dubious role as a father and husband. Darkmouth Strikes Again is literally its author haphazardly documenting his own struggle through a few hard weeks of bad times and difficult writing. Even the brighter moments, brought in by way of his son, eventually give way to a foreshadowed ruin. Ponteri writes of the boy, “My son says in a disconsolate tone, —I can’t do that, and I think, I know where he gets that from.”
It certainly isn’t for everyone and someone who is well-adjusted will not have the same experience as the person who has, at some point in their life, looked into a mirror with disdain. Whether you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, or not, empathetic readers will not come away unaffected. It’s a mentally taxing, albeit incredibly brief, read that can can quickly manipulate a cheerful mood into something sullen and ugly. But, as ludicrous as it might seem, that’s not a bad thing in this case. It’s an impressively thoughtful slideshow of male depression and allows the reader to sample, contemplate, and internalize. In the end Darkmouth Strikes Again did not satisfy my desire to see its author lure readers into a dark and expansive narrative. If anything, it served only as a temporary distraction of interesting moments and quotable lines as I continue to anticipate Ponteri’s next work and that is likely its intended purpose.