Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vintage: A Ghost Story by Steve Berman

I read a review of this over at The Book Smugglers months ago, and downloaded the ebook not long after. I finally got around to reading it. I must say, this is one of those finds that makes me love the internet. I'd never have even heard of the book if I hadn't seen that online review.

The writing in Vintage is atmospheric, the prose often elegant and always slightly melancholy. It takes place in early autumn, perfect for a ghost story. I am happy to report that I read it on a dark, stormy day, which made the ghost parts that much more spooky.

The one thing I didn't like is that the main character in Vintage isn't named. The story is told in first person, so it's not too noticeable--but while I do recall a mention of the guy's last name, we're not given his first name. Why? What earthly reason is there to keep the name from us? All it takes is for one person to say, "Hi, Bennett" once and I'd be happy.

I'm going to call the main character Bennett.

Shy seventeen-year-old Bennett is living with his aunt after running away from home. It was either run away or be kicked out after his parents learn he's gay. He's afraid to talk to his aunt about why he showed up on her doorstep, but he's lucky enough to have met a friendly goth girl, Trace. He's also found a job at a vintage clothing store where he's allowed to borrow clothes. He and Trace like to hang out in the local cemetery, sometimes attending funerals for people they don't know.

But one night, Bennett walks home late and meets a handsome boy on a lonely road, a boy wearing clothes from the 1950s, including a letter jacket with the name "Josh" stitched on it. Bennett overcomes his shyness enough to compliment Josh on his clothes--and Josh disappears.

It turns out Josh is the ghost of a high school football player who died on the road more than fifty years before. And it turns out also that Bennett is the only person Josh can hear. At first Bennett is delighted: Josh is the first boy who's ever been interested in him, the first boy who's ever kissed him. But before long, Bennett discovers Josh's darker side.

That's a long description of the book, and it only scratches the surface. There's a lot going on in this book besides the ghost story. Bennett isn't happy to discover he can see and hear other ghosts--and they are drawn to him. He has to deal with his growing attraction to Trace's brother and his worries about how his aunt will react to him coming out to her. He has to consider his own future--getting his GED, facing his parents.

Bennett is an enormously sympathetic character. His loneliness feels realistic, and makes him vulnerable to the ghost Josh. He thinks a lot about his problems without coming across as whiny or self-absorbed, and his romance with Trace's brother is sweet in its awkwardness.

The plot is great, too. I was never certain where the story was going, although it ended up right where it should. Parts of it are downright scary, particularly the scene where Bennett follows Josh to an overgrown cemetery to see Josh's grave; that's where Bennett discovers other ghosts are drawn to him too. There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot, and the pacing is good--not slow, not rushed. I loved that Bennett and Trace have to dig into Josh's past to solve the mystery of his death.

I also love that Bennett doesn't have to grapple with the fact that he's gay. He's not conflicted about that; it's just what he is, and he's happy with it. It's all those other people, living and dead, that he has to worry about.

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