[Ghosts of Yesterday by Jack Cady. Night Shade Books, 2003. 239 pp. ISBN 1-892389-29-0.]
At the end of my afternoon visit to his new home, but before I could get safely outside and away, Jason escorted me into his library and handed me two books. Of course, immediate fear and trepidation assailed me in equal measure, and I cast about for some handy escape. Bibliophiles should only share books with a certain sense of foreboding, and I've always been a traditionalist. Jason's books are nearly all rare and valuable, even the inexpensive ones, and these were two of his favorites. And one of them could greatly stress our infant friendship.
The first book he handed me with some negligence, and only as a loan. Suffice it to say it was more with a sense of intellectual curiosity about my ignorance than with any great degree of importance attached. I, a lifelong science-fiction reader, and particularly weak-willed when it comes to military SF, had never partaken of Joe Haldeman's far-future myopic, Forever War. To Jason, I am an oddity, and to this neglected portion of my canon, he insisted I direct some attention. He introduced it to me with but the one caveat, having first divined my Heinleinian pedigree and my unabashed adoration of all things Starship Troopers: Do not expect optimism. After having inhaled the book in just a day, I find Jason's taste affirmed, and his library suddenly very desirable. Jason has, quite literally, more good books than God. The Jason we're talking about is Jason Williams, owner of Night Shade Books, and books are his life.
As for this particular book, as a combat veteran, I can't but stand in awe of Haldeman's pithy distillation of my own military experience. The constant future-shock of deployment, and the vast disconnect between the guardians and those they guard, could only have been written by a vet. Haldeman's war was Vietnam, mine was the Persian Gulf (Take 1!). It seems nothing's changed in the 20 years between our service. Enough said.
The second book Jason gave to me as a gift outright, and I wanted very badly to be somewhere else at that moment. It wasn't that Jason would later expect, and rightly deserve, my opinion of it. It was that this was a very special book written by a good friend of Jason's, and this book Jason expected me to love. This was Jack Cady's short story collection Ghosts of Yesterday, and I seriously believed that Jason would shun me if my opinion of it came in anywhere under absolute devotion. This was a very dangerous book.
But there was no escape, and the book was in my hands and then on the front seat of my car, and it seemed there was a fair chance that I was doomed to exile from Shady Acres (my just-now coined nickname for the new headquarters). There it sat, riding shotgun on my way home, looking smug and ready for me, and me only barely able to admit defeat. I took it home and put it in my reading stack and said, "Someday," with the same enthusiasm I've directed at Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the last several years, which is to say, if you point a gun at my head, I'll give it some serious consideration, but then again a bullet ain't the worst way to go.
The copy I got was an advance proof, a slender trade paperback with an innocuous forest lake photo on the front cover and a nice pull-quote from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was a good looking book, which is what I've learned to expect from Night Shade, but it was the sepia-toned author photo on the back cover that grabbed my attention, and actually got me reading the first story. How could this guy be a writer? was the immediate question that sprang to mind. Jack Cady stared at me from that photo. He looked like a craggy Mennonite lumberjack. My curiosity was piqued by that photo, and I think I'd gotten a glimpse of just how much Cady was going to affect my perspective on writing and stories.
Writers are serious, introspective intellectuals. With few exceptions, their hands are soft, their hair uncombed, their eyesight and their breath poor in equal measure. I know this because I know writers, lots of them, and at all stages of their careers. They tend to resemble each other in certain ways endemic to a class of people who eagerly lock themselves away from the rest of humanity—and modern plumbing—for whatever periods their finances and familial arrangements will allow, only so they can align their thoughts and words in ways that they hope will give their readers a better insight and appreciation of humanity, and modern plumbing. Cady looked like a man who knew his way around a deadfall, a guy who got up for work at four in the morning and slogged home in muddy Dickies stinking of pitch and sawdust and stale sweat, the kind of guy who spends an hour after dinner digging the day's splinters out of his hands and forearms before devoting the remainder of his evening to Bible study and quiet time with his wife of 40 years. What he absolutely did not look like was a writer of capital-L Literature, as Jason had insisted he was. So my curiosity propelled me to open the thing up and look inside. Here's what I found there.
Ghosts of Yesterday gets right up to speed with businesslike efficiency. The first story comes immediately on the tails of the Table of Contents and the collection is off to a running start with The Lady with the Blind Dog. It took that one story about a young man's encounter with the very stuff of regret to keep me reading. Cady's got the deft touch and keen eye of a natural-born storyteller, and he commits himself to the tale with an integrity and compassion that can't but pull a reader through even his weakest material. This collection, as its title suggests, is all about the ghosts of regret and retribution that stalk us from our past. In The Ghost of Dive Bomber Hill, the ghost is an allegory of the tit-for-tat feuds that can lock their jaws on people and tear them to pieces over the span of generations. It's a metaphysical Hatfields and McCoys, and the Kentucky hills backdrop is just about as fitting a setting as I could imagine. Jeremiah shows us that we can't ever move on past the dreams we never fulfilled until we can admit that they're dead and lay them to rest. The Time That Time Forgot damn near broke my heart, and it was particularly poignant for me as I watch young kids soldiering off to the Persian Gulf that I left behind some fourteen years ago. I've never read a war story like this, and the entire collection, which culminates here, is worth the cover price just for that.
One after another, and almost of uniform quality and power, Cady's stories slammed me between the eyes. I kept looking at the back cover, trying to find some hint in the guy's countenance, something in his eyes or the way he held his head, that could account for the sheer brilliant acumen I was seeing in his work. I'd never even heard of him, and he was just flat-out eating my head, he was so good. With that old-timey, squared-off beard and untamed wilderness of hair on his head, the unwavering gaze and strong hands, maybe he still looked something like a workaday sort of man, no different than the thousands who live all around me and work in the mills or out in the forests down the Washougal or up in the hills past the Skamania Mines, but his work added something else, and he started to look a bit like an ancient Platonist in flannel.
He certainly wrote like someone who knew a thing or two, and it was obvious he was just as familiar with tweaking a Jake brake down a long and nasty grade as he was with a typewriter and correction tape. There is something very much like wisdom peeking back at me from between the lines of his work, wisdom and heart and not a little bit of wry enthusiasm and just that pinch of irony that keeps the whole thing fresh but never bitter, as a lesser writer would surely fall into dealing with such grim subjects as war and regret. If I were to put the entire collection into one word, and woe to the reader who believes this reviewer is even remotely qualified for that tall an order, I think I'd go with "hope." Hope, though not alone, is the most endearing of all Cady's qualities that separates him from any other writer with the audacity to tackle all the could've-beens and should've-dones of an entire lifetime in one short book.
And now, as I take one last look at that photo, which has become as familiar as the ones I keep in my wallet, maybe there's just a hint, there in the laugh lines around his mouth and in the crinkles by his eyes, that this is a man who knew how to live his life. Whatever else I've gotten from his work, I can say this for certain, he sure as hell knew how to write about it.