Book Review: A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke

Fiction Book Review

Title: A Bright Ray of Darkness
Author:  Ethan Hawke 
Publisher: First Vintage Contemporaries Edition
Released: January 18, 2022
Pages: 256
ISBN 10: 0804170525
Stars: 5.0

“Faith is simply a way of being completely open to the possible presence of love.”

That was my favourite line in Ethan Hawke’s latest novel, A Bright Ray of Darkness. I read it in a few days because I couldn’t put it down, and I would reread it, which is why I give it five stars. I love the plot, the pacing (the story never dragged), and its primary characters were successfully realized. Hawke’s writing is honest, raw, and humorous.  

I have been a fan of Hawke’s acting and writing for what seems like forever. I’ve followed his acting career since Dead Poet’s Society when I was twenty-five and have seen almost every movie he’s been in. He’s one of my favourite American actors, and I especially love his work with Richard Linklater.

In 2002, I had the pleasure of meeting Ethan Hawke in Toronto at a special event to promote his book Ash Wednesday, in which he spoke about his career and his books and participated in a Q&A with the audience. I was struck by his intelligence, engaging personality, and the fact that he seemed very down-to-earth for a celebrity who has enjoyed so much success. He’s thoughtful, well-spoken, and emotional—an artist through and through.

Although I never had the pleasure of seeing Hawke on Broadway, I suspect reading A Bright Ray of Darkness is almost as good. Everything written in the synopsis on Goodreads and the back cover of this book (First Vintage Contemporaries Edition, January 2022) is accurate. It’s a fantastic love letter to the theatre; fans will appreciate it!

However, I do feel this book is thinly disguised as a novel. Hawke shares his soul and what it must have been like for him to perform in Henry IV on Broadway in 2003 as his marriage to Uma Thurman was crumbling amidst the scandal of his infidelity. I thought it was sad at the time, but I never gave the gossip much thought.

In A Bright Ray of Darkness, the main character, William Harding, an angst-ridden, successful screen actor, is reeling from the fact that he knows his rock star wife is going to divorce him for his infidelity as he prepares for his Broadway debut as Hotspur in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He’s praying he won’t lose his two children while juggling fatherhood with his career, as he temporarily resides in the Mercury Hotel (which sounds a lot like the Chelsea). Despite trying to drown his sorrows in whiskey and meaningless sex, William has a few epiphanies about relationships, fatherhood, acting on the stage, and what it means to be a man ridden with self-loathing. Everyone from his coked-out mother, babysitting his children, to his stage dresser, who doesn’t want to lose the job, offers him nuggets of truth.

“Starting over seems impossible when you don’t know how far back you need to travel.”

“If you look at the history of artists, self-sabotage is more responsible for the collapse of our dreams than the whips and scorns of time.“ That line rings true; I have worked with artists for fifteen years.

If you look at photos of Hawke when he appeared in Henry IV, you know he was describing himself when he created the narrator of this book. I wonder if he was referring to Kevin Kline when creating the narcissistic Virgil Smith’s portrayal of Falstaff. There is much for Hawke fans to recognize about him in the pages of this book. Some may be quick to judge a privileged white guy for writing about his woes, but he is an excellent writer and actor, a good father to his four children, and a husband to his second wife for over fifteen years. He has learned many things about being the best person he can be, which we should all aspire to. 

This novel should not be missed. It is poignant, compelling, emotional, often hilarious, and wholly satisfying. I think it’s the best book Ethan Hawke has ever written.

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