A Rough Guide to the Darkside

Towards the end of Daniel Simpson’s A Rough Guide to the Dark Side, the author writes of his earliest attempts to come to grips with the manic, maddening events described over the course of the preceding 200-some odd pages: “Writing proved much harder than expected. Like where do you start? When to stop? What to cut? How much of it could put you six feet under? My character drove me on towards the edge. If I didn’t rewrite it soon, I’d push me over.” What follows is a descent into madness and paranoia that only underscores Simpson’s prowess as a writer. As crazy and disjointed as the last chapter of this memoir may seem, those leading up to its tormented, spiraling conclusion offer a crystal clear, if nightmarish, account of the author’s misguided effort to stage a music festival in Serbia.

In a voice reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson, Simpson critiques everything from contemporary journalism to international politics as he recounts his woeful tale. A reporter for The New York Times when his narrative begins, the author is not content to participate in the echo-chamber of political reportage, so he decides, alone with a mysterious partner (referred to only as “G”) to stage a music festival on an island in the Danube. His efforts, however, are plagued by difficulties from the outset. With no money, Simpson can’t attract big-name performers, and without big-name performers, he can’t attract the advertisers and investors who might foot the bill for his festival. Along these lines, a visit to Elie Wiesel for the sole purpose of begging for cash is among the more bizarre — and entertaining — incidents in a book that’s riddled with bizarre, entertaining, and horrifying moments.

In many ways, A Rough Guide to the Dark Side is also a delayed coming-of-age book. Throughout the proceedings, Simpson openly discusses his fears of squandering the potential of his youth, as well as his increasingly desperate attempts to numb his existential angst with a variety of drugs. Indeed, it’s this layer of the narrative that lends depth to the book and turns what might otherwise simply be the tale of a major entertainment industry debacle into an odd kind of bildungsroman: (relatively) innocent and naive boy goes to the war-torn Balkans and emerges a few steps closer to being a man.

Reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary in terms of style and Peter Hook’s The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club in terms of subject matter, A Rough Guide to the Dark Side stands on its own as a compelling critique of the media, international politics, and, ultimately, the author himself. An insightful and thoroughly enjoyable read.

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