“Jay Lake was an acclaimed short story writer. In his all too brief career he published more than three hundred works of short fiction. In “Last Plane to Heaven” we have winnowed that down to thirty two of the best of them.” (“Last Plane to Heaven” front matter)
I knew this collection was coming. I knew I was going to buy it. Jay Lake was my friend. This, I owed. To him; to my memory of him.
One of the stories included in the collection is the one he gave me for ‘River’, the anthology I edited. Its presence here was unanticipated. It was as though Jay himself grinned at me across the veil, a sort of ghostly high-five. I am delighted – but more than that, I am deeply honored – that this is one of the stories picked for his farewell book.
Let me tell you briefly about ‘River’ because it says a lot about Jay.
The anthology was something that was dear to my heart, an idea that sprang from my own deep and almost mystical connection to ‘my’ river, the Danube, on whose shores I was born, where I was young. When I got the green light for the book, I approached a handful of writers who were my friends – whose work I knew, and respected, and admired – and asked if they wanted to give me a story for this project, to tell me about rivers of their own.
Several declined, a couple accepted after carefully weighing whether it would be wise to allow their name and reputation to back a project by a novice anthology editor put out by a small press.
I asked Jay for a story just before a panel we were both on together at some con or other. He sat there, in his bright Hawaiian shirt, his feet in sandals and tie-dyed psychedelic socks, gazing at me with that concentrated and courteous focused attention that was his own peculiar gift – Jay might have been a big boisterous personality, he might have known how to be the life of a party and how to make other people laugh and play, but he also knew how to LISTEN, in a way that made you feel, when you spoke to him, as if you were the only other person in his universe at least in that moment – as I pitched my project. And when I asked for a story, all he said was:
“When do you want it?”
I loved him for that. He TRUSTED me. And the book that was born was the better, the stronger, for his story in it.
And I am utterly humbled by its inclusion in this, in his last collection. Not only did he trust me with his story, but by putting it in this book he has made my ‘River’ part of his own legacy. This means more than I could ever have thought it might.
“WORD: Word is the oldest angel of all. For you see, in the beginning Word made the world upon the waters when God spat Word from his mouth. Later, Word made flesh. Without their tongues, men would be no more tha animals. Without Word, men’s tongues would be no more than meat. Word is the beacon of our minds and the light of our days, withered proxy for an absent God.” ~ (From “Angels iv: Novus Ordo Angelorum”, “Last Plane to Heaven”)
Jay Lake’s stories – his words, his language, his ideas – are huge, great, astonishing, GIFTED things.
One keeps on reading a sentence, or a paragraph, and then stopping, and going back to savor it once more, word by word. Jay Lake wrote fiction but he wove a lot of devastating honesty into it and – you know – you can tell. There is a weight of pure emotional truth to these stories that is almost physical; you feel it settle on your shoulders and ride along with you for a long time after you’ve put the book down, like Odin’s ravens, whispering into your ear.
There is a way he sees the world – the way he takes what might seem to be something ordinary and then twisting it into things rich and strange – you walk into ruined cities with him, and into shadows, and into the light. You walk with an angel named Word, and you believe that Jay Lake might have actually met him, and talked to him, and learned wisdom at his side.
And this… all this… before he gets to the end of the book. And the most devastating, pitiless, brutal truth of all.
Every story in this book has a short preamble from Jay. And before the final story, “The Cancer Catechism”, there is this:
“This is the end. Really, there’s not that much more to say. Never walk this road that I have walked if you can help it. If you must do so, take my hand. Maybe I can help you a few steps along the way.” ~ (From “The Cancer Catechism”, “Last Plane To Heaven”)
And then – the story –
“But where surgery dropped you swiftly into a hole which then took a month to climb out of, chemo lowers you slowly, inch by inch, week after week, into a hole which you may never climb out of. Starting with your dignity and ending with your sense of self, chemo takes everything away from you.”~ (From “The Cancer Catechism”, “Last Plane to Heaven”)
THIS is the road on which he is offering to hold your hand. In your darkest hours. In the worst moments of your life… this writer, this angel called Word, who understands stories and who knows pain and loss from the inside, is there by your side.
“The Cancer Catechism” is not an easy read, not even for the healthy and the able bodied, let alone those in the grip of the same thing that held Jay himself in its sharp claws. But it is true, in the same way that you know that the summer sky is blue or the winter wind is cold. This is a savage and fundamental building block of the universe. And for this alone – if he had done nothing else at all in his life – Jay Lake, and that unflinching hand he is offering you to hold, has claimed his seat in that Last Plane to Heaven.
In the Afterword, Jay writes:
“I love you all. It has been a real privilege to know you.”
Backatcha, big guy. It’s been a privilege, and an honor. Thank you for your words, for your courage, for choosing to be my friend.
I will miss you, and all the stories that will remain unwritten.
The back flap adds the coda: “Jay Lake died on June 1 2014, three months before the publication of this collection.”
I like to think that somehow, somewhere, from a dimension he himself could never quite manage to believe in, that magnificent laughing spirit that was his can see this book – the last book – in the world that had so recently been his own. And can enjoy the fact that with a legacy like this he is never really going to be gone from that world. Those of us who knew him will think of him every time we see a loud Hawaiian shirt, will remember the easy way he could laugh, the profound way that he could care, the courageous way that he could fight.
There are many out there who have never met him, and who will not know these things directly. But for all of us – even as we wave Jay goodbye as he boards that Last Plane and is carried away from us – these words remain. And will endure.
Quote of the day
“Writing is self-reinforcing. Don’t make a fetish out of it, and don’t surrender to the myth of the garret, or the myth of the chained muse. It’s like playing the guitar, or practicing taekwondo, or having sex. The more you do, the better you get. The better you get, the better it feels. The better it feels, the more you want to do.” ~ Jay Lake
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