American Sorrows by Jay Lake

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"Our Lady of American Sorrows"
"Daddy’s Caliban"
"The River Knows Its Own"
"Into the Gardens of Sweet Night"

ImageWhen I offered to review Jay Lake‘s American Sorrows, I was almost completely unfamiliar with his work.  I’d heard of him, because you can’t avoid it if you write or read short genre fiction, but I had yet to sit down and read any of his work.  It was a mistake.  I found American Sorrows an excellent read.  I loved this book.  I was prepared to dislike it.  I figured if he’s getting so much attention, I’d have to hate him.  I’m happy to say I was wrong.  American Sorrows is filled with good old fashioned storytelling. 

American Sorrows is a sampling of four of Lake’s longer short pieces.  The stories all take place in North America, but this isn’t necessarily the continent that we know and love.  In all four stories, the fantasy is firmly grounded in a familiar reality.  No matter how outrageous the characters or situations become, the reader is always given a touchstone.

The first story, "Our Lady of American Sorrows," starts with two boys, Peter and Rodger, enjoying the summer before their final year of school and, presumably, adulthood.  The boys witness the mysterious arrival of a cadre of priests and discover the body of one of their local priests in the river.  Before long they are caught in a bloody coup that could lead to a new world war.

While trying to understand what is going on around them, Peter and Rodger meet the ghost of a Mayan shaman who, in the enigmatic way of shamans, gives them the keys to save their town.  The boys are captured and split up.  Peter meets, and is betrayed by, the visiting bishop.   He escapes and attempts to rescue Rodger with heartbreaking consequences.  Peter then comes up with a plan to save his family, town, and maybe the world.

I enjoyed "Our Lady of American Sorrows," but it is the strong religious and political themes that connected me to Peter’s quest.  Peter loses faith in the authority figures of his life.  I think this is true in the real world, too.  Like Peter, we want to rely on our leaders.  We want to trust that they will tell us the truth and act in our best interest, but when they don’t live up to those expectations, we can be lost.  We have to figure out where our loyalties should lie, and sometimes, we need to step up and take matters into our own hands.

The second story, "Daddy’s Caliban," starts off slowly.  Another pair of boys is in the midst of planning an adventure involving a river and a forbidden tower.  Henry, the narrator, is a good son.  He respects his parents, and obeys his mother’s order to stay away from the tower.  Henry’s cousin and almost-brother, Cameron, is the bad seed, condemned by the family to live in the basement.  He does his best to lead Henry into trouble.  He convinces Henry that they must steal the rowboat from Henry’s father’s factory to cross the river and climb the forbidden tower.

At the river, the boys are caught, but Henry manages to swim through the river’s current to the other side.  He climbs to the top of the forbidden tower and spends a cold night alone.  In the morning, he finds the answers he’s looking for and returns to reclaim the life Cameron has stolen while he was gone.

I liked "Daddy’s Caliban" more than "Our Lady of American Sorrows."  The speculative element is more understated until the end, but at the same time, it was more intrinsic to the plot.  The treatment of the realm of Faerie was original and it stuck in my head long after I’d finished reading.

"The River Knows Its Own" caught my attention immediately.  The setting is recognizable as a modern Portland, Oregon.  The plot is simple.  The story’s protagonist, Jorge, is an average guy.  He lives his life, works his job, and ogles his boss.  Then, on a camping trip he sees a dragon.  After seeing the dragon, things start to get weird.  He meets a sasquatch who talks in riddles.  He finds out Venera, the boss he is so attracted to, is more than just “a little witchy.”  She’s a powerful water witch with a girlfriend called the Fricatrice, who practices sex magic. 

The Lansquenet is a group of older wizards who believe they are the power in the valley.  They attempt to recruit Jorge in their plot to return the valley to its natural state through a devastating terrorist act.  It becomes Jorge’s job to stop them.

At the beginning, Lake grounds the story firmly in the mundane world with Jorge confessing his physical attraction to the women around him.  The best word I can think of to describe it is earthy.  The connection to the elements, the sex, and the human interaction all emphasize that we are not just walking on the planet, we are part of it. 

"The River Knows Its Own" is one of the best examples of how to evoke a willing suspension of disbelief I’ve seen in a long time.  Trying to describe it to another person might get you a few strange looks, but while you are reading, you are completely invested in a leaf and twig dragon, a sasquatch that represents the land,  and a wizard named Dagobertus Magnus. 

"Into the Gardens of Sweet Night" is the centerpiece of American Sorrows.  It was an L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest winner and a Hugo nominee for Best Novelette.  And it is good.  Really good.  Even if the other stories in this volume were utter trash (which they are not), the $16.95 list price would be justified for this one story.

Again, Lake makes the outlandish reasonable.   One of the main characters is a loquacious pug named Wiggles.  The other is a young man named Elroy.  He is on his way home after a year long spirit-quest among a brotherhood of monks.  Wiggles hires Elroy as a bodyguard.  They set off to find the Gardens of Sweet Night from the title, which are Wiggles’ home. 

Over the course of the story, the companions travel underground, through the air, and into space, but the ultimate focus of the story is the true nature of freedom.  Elroy feels that Wiggles paying him to perform a service takes away some of the young man’s freedom.  This troubles him.  His biggest concern is retaining the freedom to go home and live a simple life.  In order to restore his freedom, Elroy decides to help Wiggles get home because they are friends and will not take any more money.

The end of this story is nothing short of perfect.  Wiggles reveals that their adventure has been a test to determine Elroy’s worthiness.  Elroy is then given a choice that could, potentially, affect the entire world.  The path the young man chooses is unexpected, but only at first glance.  Elroy remains true to what he believes and what he has learned. 

According to the Author’s Note at the back of the book, American Sorrows came about in response to the difficulty of marketing novellas and novelettes.  Personally, I don’t care how long a story is, as long as it prods me to read further.  The stories in this volume met my requirement without exception.  So support the author and longer fiction and buy this book.  You won’t be sorry.

Publisher: Wheatland Press (September 2004)
Trade Paperback: 188 pages
Price: $16.95
ISBN: 0975590308