These are questions usually relegated to late-night conversations in dorm rooms or talk radio, or else for academics well versed in philosophy, neurology or even religion. Even when they feel more crucial to our lives, as when a loved one is dying or faces dementia, we often find ourselves speculating uselessly. But for Jon Sarkin, once a successful chiropractor, and his wife, Kim, these questions were literally life and death after a blood vessel misfired in his brain. More than six years later, Sarkin finds himself and his life transformed: now an an acclaimed artist, his wife and kids agree his is no longer the laid-back bodyworker but a driven, hyper-communicative savant. When veteran reporter Amy Ellis Nutt chose to write about Sarkin for the Newark Star-Ledger, her series “Jon Sarkin: The Accidental Artist” thus crossed all the above disciplines.
Nutt’s new Free Press book about the journey, Shadows Bright as Glass, takes that inquiry far deeper. In many ways, it sets a new bar for narrative nonfiction, in its seamless interweaving of science, philosophy and sharp characters that remain etched into the reader’s memory afterward.
Nutt has had a busy year. In April, the veteran reporter won the Pulitzer Prize (as previously noted by WVFC) for her landmark 20-page special section “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” produced after she and videographer/graphic artist Andre Malok spent seven months documenting the mysterious sinking of a fishing boat off the New Jersey coast. When she heard about the Pulitzer, Nutt had just launched Shadows, which has emerged four years after “The Accidental Artist” and almost 10 years since Nutt first met Sarkin at a gallery show.
What initially startles the casual reader is Nutt’s poetry, given her scientific topic. The book opens:
The swirling waters along the North Shore of Boston are anchored by a geography of grief: Great Misery Island, Cripple Cove, the reef of Norman’s Woe. Jon Sarkin is comfortable in this landscape, shaped as it is by loss. Centuries of women and children have waited on its rocky promontories for husbands and sons and fathers who never came home. Just west of Ten Pound Island, the Annisquam River empties into the Atlantic, watched over by the ghosts of Gloucester. In this colonial fishing village the sunlight still tastes of brine, and the oldest homes bear plaques inscribed with the names of Gloucestermen long dead: Colonel Joseph Foster, a veteran of the Revolution, who smuggled goods into Massachusetts during the British blockade of New England’s harbors; Captain Harvey Coffin Mackay, whose sloop was struck by lightning and sank on its way to England in 1830; and the Luminist painter Fitz Hugh Lane, who immortalized that seafaring tragedy months later in his watercolor The Burning of the Packet Ship Boston.
For ages, artists have been summoned here by the views of ships’ masts tangling in the harbor and Creamsicle-colored sunsets melting on the rocks.
An unusual place, perhaps, for a 21st-century journalistic narrative to begin, but Nutt is telling us right away that it’s also about the voice of the artist. And as she begins to tell Sarkin’s story, she lets us know that we’ll touch on questions that “the Ancients pondered but neuroscientists now try to resolve as they search for the source of consciousness. Sarkin, though was an unwilling participant.” Only then does she begin to tell the story of how Sarkin first experienced, on a golf course, the unexpected vertigo that eventually signaled a much larger brain trauma and the dramatic personality change that resulted.
As she traces Sarkin’s earlier life, his career and marriage, his series of surgeries and the development of his artistic career, Nutt works in explanatory material about Sarkin’s brain condition, the history and practice of neurosurgery, psychology and philosophy. Some of the latter is presented in discrete chapters, but just as often it’s seamless with the rest of the narrative: one minute you’re in a waiting room as Sarkin enters surgery to correct a torn blood vessel, the next you’re in the mind of the surgeon trying to fix it: “The outermost shell of the brain contains six layers of neocortex less than a quarter-inch thick…” Or once Sarkin recovers from his brain trauma and realizes he can paint, Nutt begins to talk about the relation between the two: “When the brain’s checks and balances are upset,” she writes, “its center of gravity shifts, like a car whose wheels have become misaligned … the skills of one side [can] override the deficits of the other.” Sarkin, she explains, is that rare “savant” whose talent is an explosive result. Not a few pages later Nutt weaves in chronicles of similarly talented individuals from centuries past, before returning us to this one New England family trying to navigate a brave new world together.
Reading this book, this reader felt simultaneously much smarter and much less so, perhaps like those who’ve long tried to answer the big questions and to resolve medical mysteries now half-understood. What is clear is that in addition to all that knowledge, Nutt has written an addictive yarn that’s hard to put down, even as we want to savor its moments and ask ourselves the hard questions it requires
Stay tuned for an interview with Nutt, scheduled for mid-August. Let us know if there are questions WVFC readers would like to ask.