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One for Sorrow, Christopher Barzak’s lovely, melancholy, offbeat first novel, affectingly captures the emotional centrifuge that is adolescence, with sex and longing the fixed axes around which everything else spins. Fifteen-year-old Adam McCormick’s classmate Jamie is too weird and too much of a loner for Adam to befriend—until Jamie is found murdered by the railroad tracks. In the wake of his death, Jamie’s ghost attaches himself first to Gracie, the geeky rock-hound girl who discovers his corpse, and then to Adam, whose grief and guilt are further tangled up with his lust for Gracie.
One of the myriad delights of this quirky love story is the way dead teenagers behave, which is pretty much exactly like live ones do. No. 13 on Adam’s list of Things I Know About the Dead and Other Observations: “The dead are just as untrustworthy as the living. They will close ranks when it comes to choosing sides.”
This hard-won revelation comes after Jamie ditches Adam for a 1930s ghost known as Fuck You Frances, who murdered her parents with a butcher knife. Barzak performs a delicate balancing act between humor and horror in his depiction of Frances, who every morning re-enacts the killing: “Screams and curses filled the house now. Jamie and I moved closer and, as we came to the front, I heard water splashing. I figured this was the part where Frances finished off her mother. ‘Why does she do this?’ ‘It’s her thing, Adam,’ Jamie said. ‘Leave it be.'”
Barzak maintains this balance throughout One for Sorrow. He possesses a remarkable gift for depicting adolescent sexuality in prose that’s at once unadorned and unabashedly romantic. He also creates lively, oddball secondary characters, such as Adam’s white-trash family-—especially Adam’s mother, a (mostly) unapologetic drunk left paralyzed by a car accident with another drunk who then moves into their home. The novel has some problems with pacing, and in a few spots believable characterization and dialogue are ground under the wheels of the plot machine. But One for Sorrow is a considerable achievement, a lyrical ghost story as moving—and credible—as it is unsettling.