Youngstown, Ohio, is a good place for ghosts. It is a dying city, or rather, a city that has died and is now trying to live again. Formerly defined by its position within the steel industry, the city now exists as the husk of an industrial center, trying to learn how to be something else entirely. Christopher Barzak, as a longtime resident of Youngstown, has taken on the responsibility of representing his city both on his blog, where he frequently writes about attempts being made to revive Youngstown's downtown area and build up the arts scene, and in his fiction. In his debut novel, One For Sorrow, Barzak has written a love story about death, and life; a story about being dead and then being alive again—a story, indeed, about ghosts. And the writing is best when he describes his ghostly Youngstown itself:
The valley itself was a wasteland. Vacant factories with smashed-up windows. Black scars on the ground where steel mills had been demolished by their owners years ago. Yellow-brown weeds and thorny bushes. Leftover machine parts. Rotting car frames and engines. Rusty metal workings. Toilets covered in strange stains. Broken forty ounce beer bottles. Couches with springs curling out of the stuffing. ... The dead were here too, trudging through the thin layer of snow that had fallen. They wandered the rubble of the mills, leaving no footprints as they went. They lingered in doorways, smoking cigarettes, nodding as we passed. Most were men wearing grease-stained jumpsuits; others were young women wearing long tweed skirts, carrying folders pressed to their chests. (p. 227)
The road to death, then, goes right through Youngstown: the city is both a repository for the dead and a reminder to the living that death is not too far away, something always lingering in the background, ready to pounce. It is a place inhabited by ghosts, most notably the ghost of Jamie Marks, a teenager who has recently been murdered. He begins to "haunt" two acquaintances from high school: Gracie Highsmith, who discovered his body, and Adam McCormick, the first-person narrator of the novel. Barzak wastes no time getting past the fact that his characters are interacting with a dead person; this doesn't seem to shock them, and they very quickly begin casual conversation. And where the novel could have easily turned into a standard murder mystery, Barzak gently tugs us away from the expectations of that genre, hinting early on that we aren't ever going to hear about the details of the murder, and that the murderer, whoever he/she is, will go unpunished. Instead, we get a story about friendship and first love, about running away and coming home again. There is the sense that these three teenagers—Jamie, Gracie, and Adam—understand each other like no one else does, perhaps due to their relationship with death or the fullness of their problems (each of them has grappled with family issues and with difficulties assimilating with their peers), because they feel different from everyone else: "The story [of Jamie's ghost] still grew ... [but] the stories didn't matter, I told myself. Most of those kids didn't know how to see themselves yet, let alone a ghost. After listening to them every day for a week, though, I decided it was time to see for myself" (pp. 27-28).
Adam definitely "sees for himself" and begins a relationship with Jamie's ghost—and, subsequently, a deeper relationship with Gracie—in the midst of the destruction of his family and his desire to be somewhere else, anywhere but here: "I had the running shoes and the body to take me wherever I went. I just needed to know where to run" (p. 59). This novel is, above all else, a story about being an outsider and finding a way to "just be yourself"—a quintessential YA narrative, even though it's published as an adult novel. There is a general disdain for adulthood, along with a simultaneous desire to be accepted as an adult: "All of the so-called grown-ups, the adults, the mature audience. They mean well, even if they make you feel like you don't know anything about anything, just because you're a kid" (p. 63). Coming of age, in Barzak's ghostly world, is equivalent to choosing life over death, deciding to accept the responsibilities—and hardships, sorrows, etc—of life, rather than the relative ease of death. As his friendship with Jamie develops, Adam begins to turn into a ghost; he begins to die. First, he notices that he is changing: "I kept thinking I'd be someone or something completely different by morning, but I couldn't imagine who or what" (p. 49). But then: "I wasn't dead yet, I was just on my way to dying, and it's harder to burn memories when you've still got life left. When you're alive, you have to learn how to live with things like regret" (p. 69). Already the responsibilities of life seem too much to bear, and Adam is looking for a way out.
The way out, incidentally, leads directly to Youngstown. Adam views the city as another world, a place where he can disappear—a place that actually facilitates disappearances because of its own ghostly existence—and a place where he can discover who he really is. He runs away (twice) from his more rural Ohio town to the city, once with Gracie and once with the ghost of Jamie Marks, trying to escape everything that life has offered him back home. His family troubles are numerous; to make a long story short, his mother has recently been paralyzed in a car accident and the woman who caused the accident has basically moved into the house, and Adam's father and brother are just generally abusive, mean, and altogether unpleasant. We fully endorse Adam's reasons for wanting something different, something better. We run away with him, "into the dark of an unknown country" (p. 138). But we, just like Adam, never quite find what we're looking for; we end up in a place we don't recognize, away from things we have grown to love.
And I'm not talking about family, or home, either; I'm talking about the writing: while effective early on, the novel gradually loses its focus, propelling us to a rather saccharine ending that somehow feels tacked on, lacking the depth of the novel's earlier chapters. Everything ends up tied together neatly in ways that, for as complex as the novel feels at times, do not seem entirely appropriate. There is a space between life and death, between a ghost town and a bustling metropolis, and Barzak was so successful at taking us there that it's inevitably disappointing when he pulls us back. Adam spends much of his time complaining about how fake the world is; he tells us early on that "smiles lie" (p. 9), that "People traded words that meant nothing for more words that meant nothing, and you had to do it if you wanted to be considered a member of the group" (p. 182), and he complains about the general public response to Jamie's murder: "Something bad happens and there's a collective gasp. I don't know why people here are like that, always trying to pretend like they don't know bad shit happens in the world" (p. 94). But then, when he suddenly decides to reenter that world, we are supposed to forget these aversions. No work has been done to make us think that the rest of the world has changed at all, or made itself anything more worthwhile to come home to. But once Adam has had a taste of adulthood, he immediately wants to go back:
It was hard, though. Hard to go back after having seen what I'd seen, after having lost what I'd lost. Hard to try and talk to a kid from a small town in Ohio who'd never run away from home, or didn't know what sunflowers and moonlight were all about yet. They had time. They had plenty of time. I wanted to tell them to stay a kid for as long as possible, because I didn't feel like one any longer and in most ways it sucked. I was doing fine ... but the world didn't always feel fine to me. (p. 303)
Under those circumstances, it is hard not to read the novel's conclusion as a step in the wrong direction for Adam. But it is a beautiful thesis, at least up until the end: that things can die and then live again, that nothing has to stay the same forever. The ending (spoiler alert!)—Adam's decision to live again, or indeed, to hope again, but also to return home—can be read, in light of the novel's preoccupation with Youngstown, as a sign of hope for the city itself, a hope that Youngstown can find a way to redefine itself in the 21sf century. Barzak's earnest good-heartedness imbues the novel with a sense of wonder, of passion, as he feels strongly for his characters and the world that they inhabit. And perhaps it is because of this love for his subjects that he could not bear to abandon them in liminal space, neither here nor there, even though I feel that just as Barzak refuses to reveal Jamie's murderer, directing our attention elsewhere, he should have resisted the temptation to bring Adam home to a world that we have spent hundreds of pages learning to resent, a world that we spend so much time wishing he could escape from. He has survived the various pitfalls of adolescence that have been laid out for him, but this ending reads more as resignation than as the application of acquired experience to one's worldview, even as the resignation could be read as an increased level of responsibility, an ability to cope with circumstances—despite the fact that the circumstances are conveniently altered in Adam's favor upon his return to his old life—which once seemed entirely overwhelming.
At one point in the novel, Adam grows frustrated with his lack of agency and mobility: "We were doomed to repeat ourselves, to be in a constant state of returning. I wondered if it was possible to ever really change. Could we ever break ourselves open and be different people than the ones who hurled beer bottles and called each other names?" (p. 203) He wants so badly to grow up, to leave everything behind, and this plea makes his return to the world that he once shunned all the more unbelievable. If he's an adult now, what was he before? Adam's "on his way to dying" period is representative of his adolescence, and so we are led to see adolescence as a kind of affliction, and I don't think this is at all what the writer, nor this reader, would have hoped for. But then again, it feels wrong to say that the novel missed a chance here when, in reality, it took so many: the relationship between Adam and Jamie is as nuanced, as real, as any friendship in literature or in life, and Barzak guides his characters through love, sex, heartbreak, and other side effects of growing up with such tenderness and truth that it's easy to forget that anything else is going on, or to care that the novel tries to be anything more than a unique reflection on the adolescent experience.
Richard Larson is a recent graduate of Hunter College, and he currently lives in New York City. His stories have appeared in Pindeldyboz, Electric Velocipede, and others. He blogs at rlarson.typepad.com.