Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence
by David Guy
Trumpeter Books, 210 pp.
It makes perfect sense that the central setting in David Guy's new novel, Jake Fades, is a bar in Cambridge, Mass. You can imagine pulling up a stool next to the narrator, Hank—you feel like you know him from somewhere—and after a beer or two, he spins a yarn about a Zen meditation guru he once knew named Jake.
Hank speaks in a quiet, almost diffident voice that's also educated, comfortable and witty. Next thing you know, you've gotten hooked on his story; perhaps you find yourself asking to attend one of Hank's meditation retreats.
You don't know what you're in for. Jake Fades is in many ways a simple book, but its simplicity is wrested from a life of hard, even obsessive work in the depths (and, sometimes, grief) of spirituality, family and sex—which are, in Guy's work, strands of a single knot. Hank is familiar because he's tilling the same fields Guy has been cultivating for 25 years.
But he's also familiar for another reason. Hank reveals, well into Jake Fades, that his full name is Henry Wilder—the teenaged narrator of Guy's 1985 novel Second Brother—and the child is unquestionably father to the man.
Wilder is now 56. He's aged more than 40 years in the 20 since we last saw him, and that trickery of time is doubly appropriate. For one, Hank has become a dedicated practitioner of Zen meditation, where time loses its authority over human consciousness. For another, he's arrived at the practice of "sitting" after a spiritual and intellectual maturation of much more than 20 years. The spark of desire lit in him by his firebrand friend Sam Golden in Second Brother first blazed bright, then became a hellacious midlife inferno. Wilder lived through it, Guy wrote through it; perhaps they were both scorched by it; then Guy stepped out of the fire, contemplated it and controlled the burn—although it still smolders—and now he has brought Wilder back for another dance with desire.
Hank is much the same as young Henry. He still has witty rejoinders to everything but prefers to slip them in unsaid between lines of dialogue. He's still got a major case of hero worship: In Second Brother, it was of the precocious Sam Golden and Henry's bookish, perfectionist older brother, Bennett; now Hank trails after Jake, his charismatic spiritual father. He's still languid but alert, shy but impassioned, a daydreamer who dreams in sharp, deep focus—and wait a second: Is he undressing you with his eyes?
Jake leads meditation retreats in Maine, with Hank as his apprentice. They've come down to Cambridge to do a retreat in the home of Madeleine, a neurotic heiress who idolizes the 78-year-old Jake and was briefly involved with Hank years ago. (His summary of their relationship: "The Woman Who Can't Hold Onto a Man always finds The Man Who Adores Women, All Women.") Madeleine has converted her home into a meditation center, hoping to convince Jake to move his retreats to Cambridge permanently.
But Jake has other plans. He is indeed fading, prone to fugal episodes in which he completely forgets himself. Jake wants his diffident disciple to assume leadership of the retreats. But mostly Jake drags Hank around Cambridge. (Jake Fades is, in passing, a loving portrait of a place.) They breakfast each morning at a greasy spoon whose Chinese matron dotes on Jake and makes legendary doughnuts; they drink each evening at that grungy bar, where everyone calls Jake "Padre"—including a young, cute, pierced barmaid named Jess who quickly develops a thing for Hank. Jake is no ascetic: He most obviously resembles Buddha at his belly; he loves his meals and especially desserts, and he can knock back a beer.
Meanwhile, a pot is slowly, quietly coming to a boil on the backburner.
David Guy wrote his first three novels for adults, The Man Who Loved Dirty Books, Second Brother and The Autobiography of My Body, in the 1980s—his most outwardly fertile literary period. It's tempting to say that he has, like Jake, faded. Since 1991 Guy has published a single book of essays, The Red Thread of Passion: Spirituality and the Paradox of Sex (highly recommended), and collaborated with meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg (the inspiration for Jake?) on two books. Guy also contributes to newspapers and magazines. But Jake Fades is his first new novel in 16 years—he wryly subtitles it "a novel of impermanence."
Yet Guy has not faded at all. Jake Fades not only distills his lifelong obsessions, this deceptively unassuming book—its Buddhist detachment may at first seem indolent or artless—is the result of widened reading and awareness, and deep meditative practice and its concomitant spiritual maturity. These 210 pages represent a major evolution of consciousness from Guy's last book, 1991's The Autobiography of My Body. That brooding novel of erotic anguish was driven by the narrator's pitiless self-inquest (and self-loathing), and by long graphic scenes of hot, often violent sex.
In fact, until the abstemious Jake Fades, all of Guy's books have been replete with hardcore action, but they aren't pornographic: The sex develops character, idea and plot. And Guy firmly binds sex both to self-discovery and to family—not just to the philoprogenitive urge, but more pointedly to the way that lovers' intimacies are often a desperate attempt to fill holes left by benighted or absent moms and dads. Sam Golden's cold, startlingly violent parents in Second Brother return in another guise as the narrator's own in The Autobiography of My Body (he calls them "The Senator and The Duchess"); even the recklessly adulterous couple of The Man Who Loved Dirty Books always have one eye on their 7-year-old son. Jake Fades, in its modest but potent way, sets up loving reconciliations between children and parents (or at least fathers; Guy's died when the author was only 16).
Guy's voice has always been rooted in the 1980s: the New-Agey prolixity of heavy therapy and alternative healing, rasped by the AIDS terror (which must be partially responsible for the lavish, dangerous sex in Guy's earlier books); and the tortured, guilt-loaded, hypersensitive masculinity of Robert Bly and Iron John. But Baby Boomers of both sexes will hear themselves in Guy's characters, free of parody or censure. Guy lived and respects his generation's self-regarding struggle—in order to ferret out and approach the grief, it had to be exhaustively discussed and objectified—and his books are frank but ultimately clement records of it. Jake Fades offers the long-sought discovery that, although the struggle never ends and the fire (in the belly or elsewhere) never dies, the flames don't have to consume you. If you patiently sit—really sit—aware but not rushing into the conflagration of sex, family and being, just feeling its heat and light, it can actually make you wiser.
David Guy will read and sign copies of Jake Fades at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 17, at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham.