As He Plays, Darkness Rising: A Review of Rikki Ducornet’s “Brightfellow”


Rikki Ducornet is a national treasure. She has birthed over twenty-three books, illustrated, taught, edited, and contributed greatly to the direction of contemporary American fiction. Brightfellow, her latest book on Coffee House Press, has been touted as her most accessible novel. Many novice readers struggle with Ducornet’s unbridled imagination (the whirling of the universe with all of its microcosms on the tip of a pin) Though I don’t find her work to be necessarily inaccessible, they certainly require an active reader—a reader that is willing to trust Ducornet as she leads them down dark avenues and into worlds filled with wonder and venom and awe—and I don’t believe Brightfellow is any different.

Brightfellow is, on the surface, a story of a homeless teenage boy, Stub, who hides on a college campus pretending to be Charter Chase (a Fullbright Scholar studying the reclusive and strange Verner Vanderloon). Stub survives by squatting in the woods and in overlooked spaces on campus (based very much on Bard College) stealing food and necessities from faculty and students alike. Within Stub is a strange wonder, a childlike curiosity fuelled at a young age by a babysitter who lives her life in-between stints in a mental hospital. In some ways, the relationship between Stub and Jenny reminds me of the relationship between Maria and Oskar in The Tin Drum sans the sexual tension. Ducornet, who has no problems delving into sexual content, takes good care to avoid it in Brightfellow, especially with Stub.

Stub, who is taken in by Jimmy, a kind and naive professor who lives in a grand house on professors’ circle, is slightly emboldened by his new situation and begins masquerading a little more openly. Where he once observed the living from a distance, he’s now able to interact with the people he’s watched so long from the shadows. He is perhaps most excited about interacting with Asthma, the daughter of a history professor. His relationship with Asthma in many ways mirrors his relationship with Jenny. Asthma represents, for him a return to his childhood, which was stunted when he was forced to abandon his home and fend for himself.

Ducornet’s prose always seduces, fulfills, and rewards. Her novels are prose rich cabinets of curiosity, the lines filled with obscure and puzzling wonders. Brightfellow is no exception. Stub’s understanding of the world, for example, is very much informed by his understanding of Vanderloon’s archaic cultural anthropological observations:

“Vanderloon divides mankind into two constants: the ones who know how to play, are full of mirth and fellow feeling, and the ones who are killjoys and combustible. Play, he writes, is a powerful form of magic—sometimes white, sometimes black. But always it is born of invention and intuition. Play is about becoming human, just as it is also about becoming a lion, a tughboat, a falloping stallion. The hallway that leads away from the child’s room and into the depts. Of the house is a river, a glacier, a bridge to the moon.” 

It is here where we see Ducornet’s excellent framing play. Language weaves between frames, reaching its inky fingers into the world, coloring everything it touches, staining the reader’s perception. Too we see the fragmented reality that Stub inhabits, his world an amalgamation of borrowed ideas and memories—a collection of things that supports him and feeds his fascination with Asthma as well as his obsession with her innocence.

[B]efore Asthma, his days were hollowed out as if by a spoon and he would enter them as a blind man enters an unknown hotel, tap-tapping across the threshold into the formless minutes and hours—and this before the night would steal up on him […] He sees her moving in her own special way with her own special grace. And oh! The Miracle! Asthma looks out—she always does this before going to sleep—for a glimpse of Peter Pan, an owl, a Martian, maybe a witch. And she tells them all: Protect me or let me be.

Brightfellow, is a beautiful and heartbreaking book that celebrates childlike wonder but also warns of the dangers in fetishizing innocence as it, like so many things in life, is a bloom, beautiful and temporary. It is because of this that we anticipate the almost certain tragedy of events that unfold at the end of this novel—a representation of heartbreak, disappointment, and alienation in a dark ember among the woods.

When you read an author long enough, you anticipate an eventual dud, but we can all thank the heavens that Rikki Ducornet exists, because she never lets us down. If you’re unfamiliar with Ducornet’s work, Brightfellow is a fine introduction to her world.


by Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press; 160 p.

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