Steve Berman,
Vintage: A Ghost Story
(Haworth Press, 2007; Lethe, 2008)

Like the used clothing to which its title refers, this tale looks serviceable enough at first, but those who try it on for size may well notice that beneath the mod fabric are many spots that have been nearly worn out as window dressing for other morbid outings.

Our hero (he doesn't seem to have a name) sees dead people. No, he's not Haley Joel Osment from The Sixth Sense, but he might as well be an older, gay version of that character who didn't discover his attractiveness to shades of strangers until he had run away from his intolerant parents to live with his aunt in Unnamed Charming Town, USA. First-time novelist Steve Berman stitches together a bit of modern goth teen attitude here with a swatch of decades-old maybe-murder-mystery there, mixing and mating patterns that never quite match and scarcely seem likely to thrill today's savvier teen readers. True, he produces a few bold passages and ghostly glimpses, but they are buried by a plethora of plot contrivances that, with some tweaking, might make for a not-so-bad episode of The Hardy Boys (if Frank and Joe ever did Ecstasy).

A big problem is that Nameless Boy's contact with those who have rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible starts happening out of the blue for no particularly compelling reason and just seems so darned easy. Sure, Berman afflicts his protagonist with a few aches and pains from the close encounters, but he spends precious little time and betrays similarly little interest in exploring the deeper implications of this sudden talent. Our guy just visits a cemetery and the ghosts show up, bitching and moaning; or they come very unoriginally via Ouija board; or in graphic dreams, which at least help to pad out the paper thin plot and fill in some of its gaps as needed.

Through such hoary devices, a lot of doom and gloom is built up over whether the first ghost our hero meets (a 1950s football jock he immediately falls for) is the kind who is dangerous or just in need of some loving kindness. The up-close-and-personal scenes between these two characters are where Berman's style often works best. The same can be said of his use of flashbacks to some of their more awkward high school experiences (showing how little attitudes toward sexual orientation among the "in crowd" in such settings have changed across the years), which may ring more true than the supernatural shenanigans for the target audience. But as the plot unravels under the stress of its weak seams, the revelations about how the increasingly unlikable jock boy met his untimely demise just don't make all of our hero's broodings and forebodings about it worth wading through.

Perhaps because it's being marketed at young adults, there's also a poor fit as some of the rougher language, drug references and sexually oriented scenes are measured up against a main character who's really not such a bad kid. Much of the action might have been better tailored to suit Trace, Nameless Boy's best friend. She's a goth girl who likes to go to strangers' funerals (Harold & Maude, anyone?), is much more into the occult and has about 10 times her buddy's personality. One of the better subplots of Vintage involves the mystery of Trace's long-missing brother, and it is our hero's contributions to that situation, even as love seems to be blooming for him with someone else connected to Trace, that make the overarching plot seem pale by comparison.

Yeah, this should have been a slightly wackier, fashion-filled adventure of Trace, the Girl Who Doesn't See Dead People, and not the mopey, worn-at-the-patches tale of Nameless Boy, the Guy Who Does.

review by
Gary Cramer

8 September 2007

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