John Darnielle has an intimate relationship with mental health struggles. His books feature characters grappling with their sanity, and his songwriting with The Mountain Goats generally deals with very complicated people trying to find their way in a confusing and difficult society. I don't know how much, if any, is autobiographical. His protagonists juggle overwhelming emotional conflict with intelligence and creativity. There usually isn't any clear-cut happy ending for them.

Darnielle has toiled with the Goats since the nineties, and along the way he acquired a strong and loyal fanbase. His literary career began in 2008 with an odd little book about Black Sabbath.

33 1/3 is a series of books from Bloomsbury Publishing. Each slim volume is a story that revolves around a renowned album of music. I've looked through the list and none of the titles really catch my interest. I've never heard of the majority of the authors involved, and the last thing I need is to get caught up in a series of over one hundred and sixty books.

John Darnielle is another matter. I happened upon his most recent book, Devil House, last year. I read it, really enjoyed the book, and I was off and running. I subsequently read his other two major fiction releases.

The last one to track down was in the 33 1/3 series. I bought it a month or two ago and after seeing and being hugely impressed with The Mountain Goats last week, I dove in.

Black Sabbath: Master of Reality
is a typically odd book for Darnielle. There is very little plot, no action, no relationships. It's an epistolary tale of journal entries from an unnamed teenager who has been committed to a mental health facility.

The journal is a portrait of a young man out of place in the world. His home life is shit, school is useless, and his few friends are the kind of party people who come and go like the seasons.

The one thing he believes in is the music he loves. Black Sabbath in particular. Most of the book deals with the narrator trying to express to one particular therapist how important Black Sabbath and the album, Master of Reality, is to him.

I understand exactly how he feels. I know all too well what it's like to feel vaguely superior to those around me, especially toward soulless authority figures, because of the passion I've felt for music. I was never a metal fan, so Sabbath wasn't my tonic, but the music of Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren, and The Tubes filled me with a kind of religious ecstasy. I pitied the people who couldn't or wouldn't understand the miracles in the albums I loved.

Darnielle's narrator (possibly an avatar of himself?) expresses himself in a crude yet oddly profound way. The young man is not stupid, even if the world thinks he is useless.

Again, I know exactly how that feels. My own parents had no idea how to reach me, school was impossible, and I felt there was no place in the world I would be welcome. I retreated to music, books, movies. Most of the time they were way outside the realm of normalcy that surrounded me.

I didn't end up institutionalized, but it could have happened. Easily. I like to think I had slightly better influences in my life than Ozzy Osbourne, but Master of Reality's protagonist said he read Robert A. Heinlein books. Heinlein was the most profound spiritual teacher of my childhood.

Black Sabbath: Master of Reality
is a rambling stream of consciousness look into a young mind. A clever, enthusiastic, bright kid with almost no chance of reaching his potential. The help he receives is worse than worthless. It drives him deeper into mental isolation, and a simple desire to be able to hear his treasured music lands him deeper into psychiatric incarceration.

John Darnielle's writing certainly isn't for all readers. His books challenge, they provoke, they rarely have easy or concrete conclusions. Black Sabbath: Master of Reality is even more obtuse than his major publications, but those who do like his books or his music are urged to find a copy.

Really, Black Sabbath: Master of Reality is a book for everyone whose overpowering love of art makes them feel a disorienting balance of alienation and emotional superiority to the passionless drones who surround us in everyday life.

Written by Mark Sieber

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