While reading One for Sorrow, Christopher Barzak's remarkable debut novel, I was reminded of a quote from Danish author, Tove Ditlivson: "Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and we do not get out of it without help."
Adam McCormick is a shy teenager, quietly existing on the fringes of his high school and his raucous working class family. Yet when the body of another student, Jamie Marks, is found murdered and buried by the railroad, Adam is moved by a sense of solidarity to visit the site of Jamie's lonely grave. Impulsively, Adam climbs into the grave and begins an intimate friendship with the ghost of the murdered boy.
This is a poignant and lyrical rites-of-passage novel, written with a gentle touch. Adam believes in loyalty, in love, and in compassion, but the world around him hardly seems to value such emotions. Adam's struggle for authenticity presents him with two possible directions: remain a boy and follow the ghost of Jamie Marks into oblivion, or brave the harder path toward adult life with all its complexities.
Barzak deftly combines the supernatural elements of the plot with the ambiguous realities of a small town: the pathos of his fractured working class family, the girlfriend who introduces him to sex and then betrays him, and even the ghosts: mild mannered like Jamie, or violent and spiteful like Frances, a girl who murdered her abusive father. Adam must learn how to negotiate such complicated unions without losing himself.
Barzak gives the teenage Adam a subtle depth. He is observant, sensitive, and reflective, meditating on the events swirling around him even as he acts impulsively. Hiding in his girlfriend's closet for the day, he absorbs himself in Catcher in the Rye -- but finds Holden's well-heeled drunken escapades in New York too alien to relate to. I think what I like best about the novel is Adam's voice. Too often contemporary novels with young adult protagonists feel compelled to exaggerate the teen voice by liberally lacing it with slang in an effort to make it "fresh" (a new marketing word) -- yet Adam's voice is clean, effortless, "ordinary" in a way that allows the emotionally charged power of the story to shine through.
I have always admired Chris Barzak's short stories (one of which can be found in the current Young Adult Fiction Issue of the Journal of Mythic Arts) and I am thrilled that he has now brought his considerable skill into the novel.