The OF Blog: Christopher Barzak, One for Sorrow

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Christopher Barzak, One for Sorrow

Adolescence just sucks pure ass. Having just completed the last vestiges of it recently, looking back, there's just so much shit that teens go through. From the constant physiological changes that can make you a stud or condemn you to the loser reject pile for the next decade to the struggling to find a strong self-identity that is both different from and similar to the childhood one is leaving, adolescence simply is not a pleasant matter for a great many teens. To understand why books such as J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye or Charles Bukowski's Ham on Rye resonate so much more with a certain subset/age, I have come to believe that it is because such novels tell those readers, "Hey, I get ya. I know where ya've been and yeah, it all sucks donkey dong. So now what, right? $64,000 question, that."

Couple the ethos behind those seminal novels with the rather grim happenings of the early 21st century America, with its "downsizings," its fractured families, its increasingly commercialized social structure, and what is there for a teenaged boy to do, trying to make his way through life, confronted with those who seem to be little more than cogs in the machine? What does one do when faced with a horrific murder on top of the usual crap, a real shit mayonnaise on top of that crap meat sandwich? And when there's a ghost involved? Aw shit, where do we begin?

In Christopher Barzak's debut novel, One for Sorrow, he addresses these concerns in a very moving and bittersweet fashion. When I first started to read this novel, my thoughts were that it had to take an author just emerging from adolescence to write such a novel, as this reads like a survivor's tale. Those initial reactions were only confirmed the more I read.

The stories didn't matter, I told myself. Most of those kids didn't know how to see themselves yet, let alone a ghost. (pp. 27-28)
One for Sorrow revolves around a fifteen year-old boy, Adam McCormick, and how he deals with growing up in the Rust Belt, somewhere near Youngstown, Ohio. In this novel, we experience all sorts of crappy situations from Adam's point of view, from his mother's paralysis, the constant and sometimes bitter arguments between his parents, the uncertain job future, and the near-constant mental torture that his older brother Andy inflicts upon Adam. It is this setting, so gloomy and sometimes painful to read, that acts as the backdrop for a very wild year in which Adam discovers that a classmate, Jamie Marks, who was nicknamed "Moony" and was considered strange, had been brutally murdered and buried underneath a tie of an old railroad track. Adam soon discovers that there are ghosts and that there was an appeal to befriending a ghost such as Jamie.

After all, the dead don't mock you for being a loner. They don't gossip or spread slander about any real or imagined mental disorders. They just are what they were when they died, and underneath their obsessions with one facet or another of the living, they just are close to the living, as Adam remarks when he is introduced to the ghost of Fuck You Frances, who killed her parents back in the 1930s:

No death's head stood beneath the tree like I'd imagined. As I came closer, I saw a small girl, face round, lips full, her hair tangled from not having combed it in years. Her dress was in rags, just like the story Gracie had told me. But other than that, she looked normal. Just poor and dirty. I guess I was a little disappointed. This was the crazy girl who had murdered her parents? She didn't look scary. She just looked sad. (p. 108)
All the while, the reader gets this sense that Adam's interactions with the dead just isn't healthy for him. Barzak does a masterful job in juxtaposing this with Adam's conflicted relationships with the living, in particular with Gracie, the girl who discovered Jamie's decaying body three weeks after his murder. As the story progresses, Adam walks the razor's edge between living life and becoming little more than a living ghost trapped in a want/need cycle of desiring what he cannot have.

Below is a scene near the end of the novel in which Adam is confronted about this in a session with his therapist:

"Way," he said, totally mocking me, but I laughed. "That's nice to hear," he said. "You have a nice laugh."

I suddenly felt weird. I'd never thought about my laugh before. "I have a nice laugh?" I said.

"Yeah. Very boisterous. Not self-conscious."

"My dad's always yelling at me to wake up," I said. "I guess that's what I am. Not self-conscious. Unconscious."

"Fathers are like that," said Kurt. "They don't know what to say to their kids sometimes. Especially to boys. Especially boys like you."

"Like me?"

"Well, you're not typical."

"You mean how I'm not so good with people," I said.

"Well, sort of. And you're different in other ways too."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, to be completely honest, you've got some problems, Adam. People don't always understand that, but they can sense it. They're afraid it's something they can catch, so they steer clear. You can hardly blame them. And well, you're not typical in lots of other ways too."

I could tell he wanted to say what these other ways were, but I didn't want him to be like everyone else, trying to tell me who I was and how I should think about myself. Everyone seemed to always be doing that to me. So even though I mostly appreciated his conversation and what he was trying to tell me, I told him I understood and didn't need to hear anything else. He said I didn't know what he was going to say, but I told him whatever he was going to say was more about what he thought than what I thought, and he nodded and said that was true. Even the most well-intentioned people don't know what's best for you. Sometimes you've got to be able to listen to yourself and be okay with no one else understanding (pp. 284-285).
One for Sorrow concludes with a partial, non-"sunny" extrapolation from this pivotal conversation. While it'd be too much of a spoiler to describe the ways in which Adam seems to have changed throughout the course of the novel, I believe I can say safely that his changes throughout the course of the novel reflect the various tumultuous stages that a great many teens undergone. While I do not know if I'd as far as certain other reviewers who have lauded this as The Catcher in the Rye for the early 21st century (just with a ghost story twist), I do believe this is a very emotional and powerful novel that hopefully will mark the beginning of a very productive writing career for Barzak. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: August 28, 2007 (US), Tradeback.

Publisher: Bantam Books


Robert said...

I've had this on my reading list for a while now, but after reading your review, I'm even more excited :) As usual, a comprehensive and thought-ful analysis!

Lsrry said...

One thing that I would have added in the review if it had come to my mind then is that elements of the coming-of-age story remind me of the movie version of Stand By Me. I would be shocked if there isn't at least a movie option taken out on this book in the next couple of years, as this story just screams out that it'd be a killer to watch. If I had read this last year when it was published, it certainly would have made my End of Year list.

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