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One For Sorrow
Christopher Barzak
Bantam, 308 pages

One For Sorrow
Christopher Barzak
Christopher Barzak's stories have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies such as Nerve, Trampoline, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Pindeldyboz and Strange Horizons among many others. He is currently living in a suburb of Tokyo, teaching English.

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A review by Paul Kincaid

Adam McCormick has run away from home. While hiding out at the home of his girlfriend he takes a novel off the shelf to read. It, too, tells the story of a runaway, but a whiny, preppy kid that Adam feels doesn't have it too bad. After all, nobody knows he has run away, and nobody's after him.

We're not told the title of this novel which, despite his dismissal of the hero, Adam tries to seek out again later. It's pretty easy, however, to work out that we're talking about J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye which, half a century ago, gave a voice to disaffected youth. One for Sorrow provides the same service for disaffected youth in the new century, though it has to be said that Adam McCormick speaks, perhaps unconsciously, with the same rhythms and patterns as Holden Caulfield.

Where he differs from his whiny, preppy predecessor is what makes this novel interesting. For a start, Adam belongs not to the privileged East but to the underprivileged mid-West. His father, a carpenter, is regularly out of work, while the most distinctive features of the landscape we see are the remains of dead industry. Adam's family life is considerably different from Caulfield's: his parents are at odds with each other, heading for a split-up that seems inevitable; while his older brother, smoking dope and running with the wrong crowd, couldn't be more different from and antagonistic towards the studious, athletic Adam.

The story begins when another in the endless series of rows between Adam's parents results in his mother driving off to find a bar. What happens, instead, is that she ends up in a collision with another car driven by a woman driving away from that same bar. The crash leaves Adam's mother confined to a wheelchair, and what's worse from his point of view it brings Lucy Hall into the family. Lucy was the driver of the other car and, at first, her appearance seems to be motivated by an excess of contrition, but as she spends more and more time with the McCormicks, eventually abandoning her husband and moving in, her relationship with the family becomes almost vampiric. As she feeds emotionally on the family, Adam finds himself more and more isolated.

But it isn't just Lucy who finally drives Adam away, because there is something else that differentiates him from Holden Caulfield: the ghost of Jamie Marks.

Jamie is a loner whose single-parent family is even poorer than Adam's. Then he is murdered (we never know by whom, it's irrelevant) and his body is discovered at the exact same moment that Lucy Hall collides with Adam's mother. This coincidence of timing should be enough to tell us there is a link between the two threads of this novel. Since Adam was practically the only kid at school who was ever friendly towards him, Jamie's ghost latches on to Adam. At first this just means hanging out in Adam's room, leaving his clothes scattered untidily about and spending hours playing computer games. But gradually, as Adam becomes tired of the mess, the relationship starts to change and we begin to see an emotionally needy, vampiric quality to it that echoes in a profound way the relationship between Lucy Hall and the family.

In casual but exquisite asides, Christopher Barzak tells us something of the natural history of ghosts. There is a bridge which, at some point, they may choose to cross, but since they have no more idea than we do what is on the other side most are afraid to do so. Instead they cling tenaciously to this world, burning their memories to keep themselves alive or stealing words from the living. For Jamie, Adam represents a way to anchor himself in the world and also, perhaps, though this is understated, to savour the friendship he never really knew in life.

For Adam the relationship, with its homoerotic overtones, is one more complication in an already too-complicated life. At one point he seeks out the shallow grave where Jamie's body was found and takes of his clothes to lie there in the earth. Which is where he is found by Lucy and his father, and which is the first suggestion of psychiatric upheaval.

As Adam struggles to understand Jamie's needs and oblique hints about the afterlife, Jamie exploits Adam's discontents. Jamie tempts Adam to run away from home, taking him first to hide out in a ruined, haunted farmhouse with the ghost of a disturbed girl who, decades before, slew both her parents. The girl's intensity drives Adam away, and he seeks shelter instead with Gracie Highsmith, the girl who found Jamie's body and who, herself, was briefly aware of his ghost. The two begin a love affair (including a sex scene which probably means this novel isn't going to follow The Catcher in the Rye into the classroom anytime soon), but when their attempt to run away together is thwarted, Adam ends up hiding out in the woods near his home. During this period (and the passage of time in this novel is a very fluid, indeterminate thing, its chronology never really seeming to hold together), Gracie provides the same anchor to reality for him that he provides for Jamie -- the novel is full of such parallels and echoes. But when he is discovered, he comes to believe that she has betrayed him. With the anchor gone, there is nothing to hold him to reality, and when he finds conditions at home are no better and if anything even worse (Lucy has moved into his bedroom) Jamie soon returns to reclaim him.

There now follows a strange, almost hallucinogenic portion of the novel in which Adam and Jamie hide out in a ruined church throughout a ghastly winter. Adam himself seems to become ghostly for all his impact upon the world, and indeed appears to come close to death. In the end Jamie's recognition that it is time to cross the bridge is the signal for Adam to cross back into reality, and into a happy ending that is a little too conveniently arranged, the one false note in an otherwise pitch-perfect novel.

Whether you read the ghost story as a metaphor for Adam's psychological travails, or the upheavals in Adam's family as a grim mirror for the haunting, this is a superbly structured, beautifully written coming of age story. It is, in its way, as powerful and affecting a debut was The Catcher in the Rye was half a century before.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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