THE LAKE, THE RIVER & THE OTHER LAKE *
By Steve Amick. Pantheon. 365 pp. $25
The cover of The Lake, the River & the Other Lake is a detailed map drawn by author Steve Amick of the Michigan resort town of Weneshkeen, the fictional universe of his wonderful novel. One looks down upon the absorbing pen-and-ink world of Weneshkeen -- its miniature streets and houses, its baseball diamond and handkerchief squares of garden, its cemetery and fudge shop, churches and orchards and water tower and lighthouse -- as if from the cockpit of a prop plane. The horizon of Lake Michigan toward which the landscape seems to be rushing is that pre-Enlightenment flat line, the razor edge of the world. Tiny three-masted schooners sail along the rim.
We sometimes say that writers "see" the places about which they write, just as they "hear" their characters speak. Writers who create fictional worlds -- as opposed to those who set their stories in actual places -- often seem to see their imaginary landscapes laid out in longitude and latitude. Some are inspired to render them with all the iconographic detail of treasure maps -- This way to the pirate cave! J.R.R. Tolkien drew a map of Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains and the Desolation of Smaug for the flyleaf of The Hobbit. In his 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner included a hand-drawn map of Yoknapatawpha County, which he signed "William Faulkner, Sole Owner & Proprietor."
Like these great builders of dream worlds, Amick has fashioned his own parallel universe, and it has the feel of a place that has been growing in his imagination for a long time. When he sat down to write, he clearly knew not only Weneshkeen's inhabitants but also the street corner on which events took place, the shoreline of the lake and river, and all its particular landmarks.
The Lake, the River & the Other Lake is actually several stories flaring to life simultaneously. The Weneshkeen locals interact with each other and with the summer visitors in dramas of love and lust, loneliness and ambition, fear and loathing. Roger Drinkwater, a Vietnam vet with a horror of loud noises, plots revenge against the jet-ski vacationers despoiling his precious lake. The cherry farmer "Von" vonBushberger grapples with changing times and his grown children's choice of spouses. The town's retired reverend, mourning his wife's death, is befriended by a teenage girl who helps him set up his new computer and ignites in him a passion for all that is holy and unholy. A laconic teenage boy falls into a surprising affair with another teenage summer visitor, the rich, gorgeous, nymphomaniac Courtney.
Each of these stories, and these are only some of them, has considerable charm; they are as moving as they are funny, and they are quite often very moving and very funny. The storytelling has an old-fashioned air -- Amick uses words like "scoot" and "smooch" and "snicker" -- but it is not sentimental, and it never pokes fun at these small-town characters. Amick has taken care to ensure that the pratfalls of these ordinary people are not mere sight gags; they are revelations about the characters' humanity. Like the giant mapmaker peering through the windows, he has a gift for revealing his characters at private moments. Sometimes, when they think no one is watching, the people of Weneshkeen are monsters; sometimes they are blazingly heroic. Thus Amick catches Reverend Gene, alone at night, appalled, before the bottomless pit of Internet porn: "And some nights, nights like this, he thought he might bust an artery from crying, from sobbing at the thought of what he had become."
Behind all the shenanigans of Weneshkeen's citizens lie the terrible old familiars of fear and loss, and they give this gentle novel a weight that makes it worth cherishing. You won't find Weneshkeen on any real map, but when you come away from The Lake, the River & the Other Lake, you'll know you've been to the real world all the same. *
Carrie Brown's most recent novel is "Confinement." She teaches at Sweet Briar College.