The Silver Dark, by Herbert Clyde Lewis

This book is a bit of a mystery. My copy, a 1959 Pyramid Books paperback, shows no prior publication history. There is a quote from Budd Schulberg (“A genuinely original and compelling novel”) on the cover, which is the sort of thing one might expect to be carried over from an original hard cover release–but this appears to be the first and only edition. And there is the fact that Herbert Clyde Lewis died from a heart attack in 1950, which makes this a posthumous first-time publication–something that’s also a little unusual in a cheap paperback.

However this came to be published, it did little to revive Lewis’ reputation. His three other novels–Gentleman Overboard, which I reviewed here a couple of months ago; Spring Offensive, an anti-war novel from 1940; and Season’s Greetings from 1941–were already long-forgotten by then. The Silver Dark soon disappeared, too. I could locate less than a handful of copies for sale on the Internet today and virtually no library has a copy.

Cover of first edition of 'The Silver Dark'It’s a real shame, for The Silver Dark is a memorable story told remarkably well by Lewis. Theodore Huber is a dwarf, living alone in a small Manhattan apartment, working as a bookkeeper, shuffling through the streets trying to avoid the looks of pity and disgust. The emptiness of his life rings in our ears:

He ate with automatic movement, spoon from plate to mouth and back to plate again. He had no chance for happiness. He was trapped. He was tired of living and unable to die. He was in a void; he was existing in a vacuum. Slowly, he got up and carried the half-empty dishes into the kitchen for Mrs. Asgood to wash in the morning. Time had stopped, as far as he was concerned. For the rest of his life he would feel the same way, think the same thoughts, do the same things every day and every night. He would go on like this. He would observe his fortieth birthday and his fiftieth birthday in this fashion, and then his hair would grow gray and his breath would come short, and one day, alone, he would die a natural death.

His only real interest is in the lives of the beautiful women and handsome men he sees in the streets and through apartment windows. Theodore is not a peeping Tom, but he is at least a glancing Tom. He fantasizes about the lives they live: “She worked in a department store, and now she was hurrying home to her man, who worked in a bank. He was waiting for her, and as soon as she came in they kissed each other. Theirs was not a passionate kiss; theirs was a friendly kiss. Everything they did was friendly, easy, companionable.”

One night, he goes up to the roof of his apartment building to look out at the city. He sees a man and woman in an apartment and watches as they begin to make love. Suddenly, he becomes aware that someone else is up there with him. He panics, but then a strange, misshapen woman sees him, screams and faints. He carries her to his apartment. She revives in a few moments and runs out into the hallway in fright.

He hears no more of this, but over the next few days he starts ruminating, turning the incident over and over. He convinces himself that this woman is his only chance, the one woman who might actually accept him. He tracks her to a neighboring apartment and learns her name–Jane Liste. He decides to write to her. It’s the kind of letter a novice stalker might write: “I have very few friends, in fact, I haven’t any, and you were the first person I talked to, outside of business hours, in a long time…. I’ve been thinking it would be good if we could see each other, because we hardly know one another and might have a lot to talk about.”

A reply arrives. It’s polite, a little friendly. But there’s a hitch. Jane left New York, where she’d been visiting an aunt, the day after the scene on the roof, and returned to Bakersfield, California. A few more letters are exchanged–still friendly, but no more. Theodore, however, manages to talk himself into a romantic whirlwind. He quits his job, put his few belongings in storage, and flies off to Bakersfield. (In Lewis’ world, by the way, there are direct flights from New York to Bakersfield.) He has decided that he and Jane must get married.

Jane, a hunchback who leads an even more isolated life, lets Theodore into her apartment, and an hour or two later, they head off to City Hall for a marriage license. It’s a mark of Lewis’ skill that he manages to make this implausible sequence of events believable. I think it’s due in part to the jarring contrasts he creates. On the one hand, everything going on in the world around these two people is mundane, muted. On the other, there are their emotional worlds, which are filled with bone-aching loneliness and wild dreams of idealized love. While other people go on about their lives, Jane and Theodore are so used to living in pain that it seems sensible to take each other’s hand and go leaping off a cliff into marriage.

It’s not an easy landing, though. One thing they have learned and internalized from decades of living in a world full of normal looking men and women: a deep, deep disgust for people who look like–well, they do. They both want to find not just companionship, but romantic, sexual love; what they feel at the sight of their naked bodies, though, is repulsion.

How Jane and Theodore get beyond these feelings and come to discover a genuine, mature love involves yet more implausible events, but to the very last page, Lewis does a remarkable job of pulling us along and leading us through their emotional transformations. The Silver Dark reminded me at times of McDonald Harris’ Mortal Leap, another book about making a radical life decision. Our rational mind keeps whispering, “This just doesn’t make sense,” and yet we keep turning the next page and reading on.

Coming across a book like The Silver Dark is what makes the pursuit of neglected books so enjoyable. I had essentially no information whatsoever about this book, aside from the fact that I had enjoyed Lewis’ first novel, Gentleman Overboard. I had no idea if this would be good or bad, interesting or tedious. So if it hooked me, it had to do so solely on its own merits, without the aid of reputation, reviews, or anyone’s word of mouth.

And it did. I finished The Silver Dark in three days of a working week, which is exceptional for me. I wouldn’t call it a great novel, but it is certainly a good one–original, unusual, and continuously interesting. It proves once again what treats lie in store for those who dare to dive deep into the stacks.

The Silver Dark, by Herbert Clyde Lewis
New York City: Pyramid Books, 1959

2 thoughts on “The Silver Dark, by Herbert Clyde Lewis

  1. I just (6/30/12) came across your review of The Silver Dark in the course of looking for a copy I can buy. Herb Lewis was my father. You’re right, there is no prior publication history. The Pyramid edition is the only one. My mother edited the manuscript and got it published after the death of my father (who I barely remember–he and my mother had separated several years before he died). The quote by Budd Schulberg is there, probably because Schulberg’s mother, Ad, was my mother’s literary agent. A heart-stopping, poignant moment for me, coming across your review. I’m glad I found it.

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