As Buddhist ideas become more commonly known in the west, they increasingly pervade art and literature. Reviewer Hazel Colditz, herself a Buddhist and artist, was impressed by David Guy’s new novel of impermanence, Jake Fades. Author David Guy is a teacher and writing instructor residing in North Carolina. A graduate of Duke and author of several books, he reviews books for newspapers and is a contributing editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
Jake Fades is a novel of impermanence. It is a simple yet enriching read based on the day-to-day lives of two main characters: Jake, an aging teacher of life, and Hank, his sidekick and student. Jake’s mission in life is to teach that everything will die, including himself.
Jake starts out as a young man passionate about art and intent on making his mark. Most of Jake’s training in Zen is described to Hank in flashbacks throughout the novel. He travels to the east, meets a humble landscape painter in Japan, and soon becomes his student and servant. He is taught to focus on observing life: “Learning to observe and appreciate the landscape before you [do] something so presumptuous as painting it.” With Jake’s youthful passion and energy it is hard for him to be told to sit and observe. He resists for months but eventually gives in and grows to love it, and twelve years later he is ordained as a Zen priest.
Jake always holds to the early teachings he imbibed in the monastery: “Buddha nature, true self,” he says at one point. “This practice isn’t about sitting. It’s about compassion which can’t be taught … where you naturally feel for the person, reach out to help.” Jake teaches and embodies these aphorisms.
In Zen we say the answer to death is to die now. That’s our answer to the problem of impermanence…
Hank first encounters Jake while in Maine on a vacation with his son, Josh. Josh is a typical teenager, and he and Hank are having one of those father/son vacations-from-hell experiences. While in Maine they rent bikes from Jake, who repairs bikes for a living. When Josh returns his bike he throws it on the ground in front of Jake, frustrated not just with a difficult ride, but with his parents’ divorce and the problems this brings. Jake is unperturbed by Josh’s anger or the damage he causes to the bike, and Hank is struck with Jake’s compassion towards his son. This marks the beginning of their relationship.
The following year they return and thus begins Hank’s introduction into a life as a student of Zen. Jake has a way to make people feel safer and saner by just being around him and Hank wants more. Hank, who struggles with issues of sexual craving, love, and fear of commitment, tells Jake he wants to just stop all his constant craving. Jake tells him “This is your conditioning. This is your karma. You have to see this, the nature of desire.”
I particularly enjoyed David Guy’s storytelling and how he presents Jake as a rounded human being, a profound and humble teacher, but also imperfect. Jake is not a vegetarian, he likes to kick back with a few beers, and he has a passion for desserts.
Just beginning in Buddhism myself I have always had great difficulty in trying too hard, almost forcing my perception or understanding of what a “perfect” practice might be. Am I doing the prostrations correctly? Why won’t my mind just stop wandering during seated meditation? Why can’t I be like everyone else in the room, damn it! There’s reassurance in seeing the imperfections that can exist alongside an inspiring practice.
I recognized myself in the character of Jess, a young woman working in the town bar and who struggles to find herself, and in Madeleine, who can sit in perfect posture with grace and physical ease, but who after years of training cannot sit through an entire retreat because of overwhelming fear. She is the one whom Jake feels deep compassion for, a woman whose wealth made it easier for her to escape herself. She loves Jake, although Jake always knows it was not truly him that the woman fell in love with, but the Dharma, the teachings of Buddha.
David Guy writes about impermanence in and through his characters’ lives and their dialog…
David Guy writes about impermanence in and through his characters’ lives and their dialog, not just through the obvious fact of Jake’s death through Alzheimer’s disease. “In Zen we say the answer to death is to die now. That’s our answer to the problem of impermanence,” Jake says, introducing a talk that Hank is to give. Hank’s response to Jake’s words on impermanence comes out in a teaching: “Our past is what we think of as our life, that whole life of thought and memory that we carry around all the time, but nothing actually repeats itself. Every moment is new, and you can’t live this moment until you die to the past one.” This is the magic of David Guy’s writing; he infuses his knowledge or understanding of Buddhism in his dialog between the characters.
Jake teaches Hank that living in the moment is about being fully present. Jake is fully present even if his mind, because of his Alzheimer’s, isn’t. Even in his “moments of forgetting” Jake is in touch with what Hank calls “the unconscious rhythm of the universe.”
Jake connects his Alzheimer’s with his Zen practice. “Sesshin [intensive meditation] is like death,” he says. “When you can’t talk, can’t write, can’t read, give up everything that makes you you, who are you?” In an analogy Jake describes how once in his youth he is in a car accident and incurs amnesia: “The strangest sensation. I came to on a hospital table and was clearly awake, looking around, but I had no idea who I was.” Where does the memory go, when it isn’t there? Jake was scared living with his illness but was not unhappy because he had found acceptance.
“I wanted to discover wisdom that manifested as compassion.” These are Hank’s words as he describes why he became Jake’s student. He fell into the lap of Buddha so to speak. Isn’t that what we are all looking for? A life fulfilled, as portrayed in Jake Fades.