27 November 2007

Locus Magazine's Gary K. Wolfe reviews Christopher Barzak

from Locus Magazine, November 2007

One for Sorrow, Christopher Barzak (Bantam 978-0-553-38436-9, $12.00, 310pp, tp) September 2007.

The ghostly romance has a long and impeccable pedigree, from Keats to Robert Nathan to Peter S. Beagle, but it's still a risky form to undertake, easily falling into the appalling sentimentality of movies like Ghost (or the lemming-horde of many recent paranormal romances), into facile mysticism, or into the crypto-horror tradition of beautiful young things who morph into rotting corpses the minute you get to first base. Christopher Barzak, in his elegant and moving first novel One for Sorrow, manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of the form while taking full advantage of its emotional energy and its potential for illuminating visceral real-world issues such as family, identity, and alienation. And his strategies for doing this are especially interesting: for one thing, the ghostly romance that eventually occupies the center of the book is essentially homoerotic in nature (and the manner in which sexuality is treated in general is complex and interesting), and for another, he grounds his supernatural fantasy in a pointedly naturalistic setting, a small Ohio town on the skids following the loss of industry, and specifically in a struggling working-class family whose relationships are clearly strained by real economic pressures. Though at times Barzak's young protagonist Adam McCormick seems pointedly to echo Holden Caulfield (who's specifically alluded to), he's far removed from Salinger's disillusioned prep-school dropout, and his home life more resembles one of those downward-spiraling working-class families of Joyce Carol Oates. In terms of the authenticity of its setting (so clearly described that you can pretty much map out the geography of Adam's home town and its nearby woods), the disturbing issues it confronts, and the manner in which it develops the ghost-as-Vergil theme, the novel reminded me more closely of Susan Palwick's Flying in Place than any other contemporary ghost story.

Already half in love with easeful death because of the recent loss of his grandmother — virtually the only member of his family he could talk to — Adam is further shaken by the brutal unsolved murder of a classmate he had not quite befriended, another outsider named Jamie Marks. Adam's identification with Jamie is telegraphed early, and a bit too transparently, when Adam holds Jamie's yearbook photo to the light and sees his own face superimposed — his photo is exactly on the other side of Jamie's. But initially, it's not Adam who draws the attention of Jamie's ghost; instead he begins appearing to Gracie Highsmith, the punkish rock-collecting tomboy who initially discovered his body — on the same day that Adam's mom, following a fight with her husband, is paralyzed in an auto accident (Adam describes it as "the day that God's finger descended on my family"). As Adam's home life continues to deteriorate — his mom trapped in a wheelchair, his father working only intermittently, and the vaguely predatory woman Lucy (who caused the auto accident) taking care of the mother and eventually moving in — he finds himself drawn in two directions: toward a romantic-sexual relationship with Gracie, and toward the oblivion promised by Jamie's ghost, who quickly shifts his attention from Gracie to Adam. Barzak is especially adept at portraying the sheer physical hunger of the dead in the figure of Jamie, and soon Adam — whose plan to escape to California with Gracie is foiled — finds himself a runaway, escaping instead into "dead spaces" where, in addition to Jamie, he meets another ghost called Fuck You Frances, whose fate seems to be to endlessly re-enact the murder-suicide in which she stabbed her parents to death. But Adam is by now so deracinated he manages to piss off even the dead, and he eventually finds himself sharing an abandoned shack in the woods with a giant spider, drawn equally to the worlds of the living and the dead.

The story, then, is in the end the story of Adam's choice, and if the inevitable resolution of whether to choose life is a bit of a cliché, and if some of the episodes on the way toward that choice seem a little digressive (such as Adam's hiding out for a while in an African-American church in Youngstown), and if some of the magical devices seem a bit contrived (when Jamie shows Adam that the "dead spaces" in closets can lead to instant transportation elsewhere, you keep expecting them to emerge in Narnia), none of this really matters much. What finally holds the novel together isn't the wealth of its supernatural invention, but its sharp, unsentimental characterization, its stark immediacy of setting, and — perhaps most of all — Barzak's spare, lyrical prose which, as in his earlier short stories (including "Dead Boy Found", which appeared in Kelly Link's 1993 Trampoline and provided the germ of One for Sorrow) is compelling enough to convince you that Barzak is an auspicious new voice, deeply humane, deeply intelligent, and deeply observant. It's one of the strongest first novels I've seen this year.

Read more! This is one of over two dozen reviews from the November 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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