Monday, September 12, 2005

The Lake, the River & the Other Lake : A Novel by Steve Amick

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 384 pages
# Publisher: Pantheon, 2005
# ISBN: 0375423508
# Price: $25.00

One of the ways many readers judge a good book is by the degree of reluctance we feel in leaving it once the last page has been turned. I felt no reluctance at turning the last page of Amick's first novel, The Lake, The River & The Other Lake. Indeed, I couldn't wait to leave this fictional little Michigan town and all its inhabitants far behind.

I recently came across a quote by author Alice Walker: "If art doesn't make us better, then what on earth is it for." I do believe art, in any medium, is to bring to our greater awareness and understanding both the light and the shadow side of human nature. Indeed, anything less, anything focusing too heavily on either the light or the dark side, and a story sinks to something maudlin, loses touch with reality, and does little to enlighten us. Balance is key.

Amick's novel opens with skillful writing, soon capturing my interest with one, then another promisingly quirky character. I turned the first pages with enthusiasm and a sense of discovery. It didn't take too many pages, however, before my expectations were disappointed. As the long line of characters came on stage, each one seemed darker (if not more depraved) than his predecessor. Light playing with the shadows of the human psyche seemed to fast become increasingly shadows only, with now and then only a wan, stray beam of light, barely enough to keep me reading. Had I not received an invitation to attend an upcoming author's reading for this book, I am quite sure I would have given up without finishing it. How depressing to read about characters who seem to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, not even enough to give them a believable struggle with their dark side. That Amick's skill as a writer was evident only increased my frustration at potential so unfulfilled.

The cast of characters includes: an Ojibwa man, Roger Drinkwater, who blows up jet skis and freaks out their noisy and inconsiderate owners (okay, on occasion, I actually liked this guy) by popping up out of the waves with war paint on his face; a 16-year-old boy, Mark, who, although he is otherwise presented as an appealingly sensitive and thoughtful young man, seems to have nothing but nothing on his mind other than having sex with 17-year-old Courtney and will put up with the most outrageous abuse from the girl; Courtney, who seems to have nothing but nothing on her mind but humiliating and debasing her young suitor in any manner possible, to ever increasing excess, just because she can; an Archie Bunker type bigot without Archie's charm who resents the marital choices of his children from other ethnic backgrounds but makes an unconvincing turnabout later; a 69-year-old minister, newly widowed from a marriage he cherished, suddenly lost in lust for a 16-year-old girl and in the throes of that lust, becoming addicted to Internet porn that focuses on teenage girls and within a two month span becoming a pedophile; a female cop who never quite develops much of a personality other than wanting to write comedy for David Letterman and developing a crush on Roger Drinkwater, and who looks the other way when his destruction of jet skis turns ever more explosive; and too many others. It was difficult at times to keep track of who is who, as the chapters often have little or no connection.

In general, the cast of characters all remained two-dimensional to me. They failed to involve me in their lives, failed to win my compassion, failed to make me believe they could be real. They remained caricatures rather than characters with counterparts in reality. Amick invites us to look through a peephole, offering a peephole-size insight into the scene before us, hints at what may or may not lie underneath, and moves on again to another character. The result is shock value with graphic descriptions and perverse scenarios with no real purpose other than, well, shock value. The author struck me as a wannabe Philip Roth (certainly not a Garrison Keillor, whose small town stories have often amused me with their well targeted mirroring of our society), offering explicit scenes of human depravity without yet the artistry to make us care what happens to these poor twits. He skims across surfaces, something of a jet ski that makes noise, rattling what lies beneath, but never submerging to find the treasure buried below.

My greatest value in reading this first novel was in the discussion it brought about with various writer friends about what it is that we seek in our fictional characters to infuse them with life and what it is that makes a book memorable. This first novel falls into the examples of writing that achieves neither. A chance to address and explore important themes with meaning was lost in these pages, remaining only at the level of sensationalism.

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