I caught a trailer for Jamie Marks is Dead and it intrigued me, and then I discovered that the ghost story was based upon a novel. I went for the novel first and I am very glad I did.
The novel, One for Sorrow, is written by an author from Youngstown, Ohio, and is about the region I grew up in. College writing professor Christopher Barzak spins a delightfully tense tale that slips between the boundaries of drama, romance, and ghost story like a cold knife slipping between my ribs.
The story idea of course is about a small-town Ohio athlete who sees the ghost of a murdered town loser. I was drawn to the story because I have always cared about the idea of pariahs as it interacts with love, society, and the concept of belonging. Here is a ghost who tries to belong after his life is over. Here is the jock who never reached out who finds compassion too late, or is it?
I have often praised novels that have no distinctive stylistic merit. That does not mean I am insensate to the truly deft. Barzak’s narrator, Adam, has descriptive voice like autumn leaves in a chill wind: slightly dry, a little twisted from the standard, but ruggedly beautiful. Barzak never loses sight of the emotion of a scene, never chooses a maladroit word, and comes up with some truly astounding metaphors for simple moments of family, adolescence, nature, and society. There are three scenes of overt sexuality in the book and each one is so different in emphasis and detail that I might have thought a different author wrote each one. The truth is that Adam was in a different place mentally, emotionally, and relationally so the sequences are completely different.
Just as I enjoy fun tales without distinctive prose, there are some genuinely horrible novels with excellent technical craft. Barzak’s story is comfortably above average. There are two things that strike me as worthy of special mention.
The first is Balzak’s subtle weave of supernatural mythology. He has ghosts for a reason, and a reason that they are driven. In the film adaptation some hack eroticized Adam giving words to Jamie’s ghost. On film you simply see an actor shudder in a suggestive manner. In the books there are no shudders, but Jamie grows more real with each word he is given, and Jamie is trying to cling to reality that slips steadily away. Ghosts are cold, and they must burn memories to stay real, to keep from fading away into a dead place. Adam is giving meanings, thoughts, concepts, and the more Jamie burns them, the more they are lost to Adam who starts to feel more and more detatched from the world. At first this seems to be a blessing as the stresses and trials of a hard teenage life grow slightly more distant… but the process doesn’t stop, and a looming sense of foreboding grows with quiet tension like a storm front rolling across the sun. That is the real threat for both characters, an excellent metaphor for the encroaching burdens of adulthood that comes without trumpets or battlefields.
There was a lot to like about the mythology. Even seemingly mundane items are rich with imagery in Adam’s narrative. The ghosts alone would not be enough to keep me entertained, but there are concepts like dead spaces that link un-lived-in places together. There are more mundane ghosts, a couple images out of straight up nightmares, the real power of young love between Adam and his girlfriend has an interesting moment of transformation or two.
I particularly enjoyed the Jungian reversal that characters have literal shadows that reveal their hidden thoughts or secrets. Barzac takes the metaphorical and makes it literal, and then scatters hidden meaning across the physical. I am sorry to come across all highbrow about this book, but it is English major nerd candy to be sure.
Some critics talk about homoeroticism in the book, and for the most part I think that’s crap. There are a few moments that are awkward, but the growing connection only has overtly sexual connotations towards the very end, and that amounts to a kiss. Contrasted with the heterosexual content of the book that is small fish indeed. Barzak is quite open about sex when it is going on so I see no need to read a lot of sexual tension into subtle and quiet moments. Most of the personal connection with Adam and Jamie hearkens back to a freezing person trying to keep warm. Sure, that’s physically close but there isn’t really any sexual activity between the guys. It’s much more about fraternization than romance between the two main characters. Sympathy, compassion, love, and sacrifice do not need to be sexual. There is much more philadelphia than eros portrayed here.
To be blunt, the questions asked about who we love, how much, and how far we will go to sacrifice for them, endure their pain, and give for their comfort is not a question of gay or straight, but it is a fundamental question of the human condition. Beyond that, it is a question whose answer (though Barzak never overtly goes there) that finds its answer in the Cross.
I cannot determine Barzak’s take on Christianity here. An empty church becomes a very important scene later on in the book, as well as a brief visit to a full one. They seem to represent Adam’s growing choices between death (a quiet funereal church) and life in the bustling black Methodist worship. God does not make an appearance. There are neither devils nor angels hiding in the shadows. Unless, and I am still not sure, they hide so very well… Barzak’s symbolism can be deft enough that I cannot say for sure. Enough detail work comes together that I could see Barzak pulling a Book of Esther, placing God obviously behind a curtain but hidden enough that an anti-Christian academic and literary world would not see it. Particularly, the final choices that the characters face about surrender and sacrifice in love for the other have some worthwhile meanings.
Every critical review mentions the glaringly obvious fact that we never discover Jamie’s killer (though the film makes a ham-handed attempt to devalue the question), but they miss the point. This is not a story about two boys trying to right a wrong, or expose the guilty. It is a story of three or four lost souls who struggle to matter and persevere, and then find the courage to go forward. It may be presented in understated tones, but it is nothing less than a story about Hamlet’s age-old question, to be or not to be.
I am glad that I read the book before I saw the movie. The film was slightly creepy, but it did not have the depth or wonder that I enjoyed in the novel. Major characters and themes were stripped entirely away, and they were quite good ones. Adam’s constant recollections of his somewhat crazy Catholic aunt were a drumbeat keeping time with the story, and the book title is drawn from one of her more creepy rhymes. Adam’s conflicted relationship with his father, who is a failed laborer and yet whose sayings and mannerisms recur in Adam’s thoughts and unexpected moments, has no place in the story and is replaced by a single mom.
Both book and film capture the soul-destroying cruelty of humanity that lays so close to the surface among adolescents. There are deep questions about what matters most in life, and how to love someone when you cannot change their suffering (I may or may not be talking about the ghost). The book is highly recommended for the not-easily-offended, though it will probably never win a spot on Pat Robertson’s bookshelf. The film would be worth renting once, but I would not buy popcorn or pay theater prices for it.
Barzak’s intriguing story is now available in a literary and film version. I highly recommend the former over the later.