Book Reviews

Review: Jake Fades by David Guy

This week I’m reading Jake Fades: a novel of impermanence by David Guy, about a Zen master who fixes bicycles and teaches meditation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The tale is told by Hank, his long-time student, and the ageing Jake hopes that Hank will take over teaching from him. Commitment phobic Hank doesn’t feel ready to take on the responsibility, but Jake is starting to show signs of having Alzheimer’s disease.

Jake Fades is a gentle tale about family and change, filled with an assortment of well-drawn characters in a setting that feels real. The ins and outs of Zen practice are explained as the story unfolds, with just enough information not to interrupt the flow. You don’t need to know anything about Zen in order to follow it or understand the book. In Zen practice, the challenge is to let go of the self and simply be, revealed here through Jake’s dementia as it slowly encroaches on his mind.

The story reveals the dharma through interactions between the characters, not just in dialogue, but in small gestures and reactions. This really brings it to life and you get a sense of what it’s like to go on a Zen retreat and sit for hours in meditation, what it can do to your mind and how hard it can be to just sit.

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, each moment is what it is, like a meditation on life. The concise prose is full of wisdom, clarity and humour, and shows how Zen works in a down-to-earth way. A beautiful book. Here’s a quote:

“He shrugged, split the leg from the thigh of his chicken. ‘We’ve got to be realistic,’ he said. He seemed utterly casual, as if chatting about the weather. ‘I don’t know if I can do it.’

Because of the way we lived, seasonally, Jake hadn’t taught for six months. In past years he’d found a way to do weekend events, but this year he’d let it ride. Students came to see him – most lived in New England anyway – to talk and sit informally. He taught by phone, also a little by email, though he didn’t like that, wasn’t a good typist with those thick mechanic’s hands. But he hadn’t given a talk in six months.

‘You did fine around the shop all summer,’ I said.

Sometimes I would see him just sitting, parts spread in front of him on the table or floor. He might have a bewildered look, then he’d settle into a kind of calm, he’d sit and wait. After a while he’d begin working again.

‘Bicycles are one thing,’ he said. ‘Machines in general. All my life, drop me in front of a machine, parts all over the place, and even if I’ve never seen it before, I’ll get it together. Sooner or later I see it. But if I blank out in a talk, there are no parts on the floor. There’s nothing.’

You might have thought he’d be frustrated, angry, or sad, but he was just tearing into the chicken, that delighted little smile on his face. The leg went first, then he started on the breast.

Jake had always been a deliberate talker in the zendo, never prepared a thing. He liked to hold the kotsu, that little stick that priests carry, like a stake, plant it on the floor in front of him, and grip with both hands. He might pause for twenty seconds, thirty, waiting for the next point to come or the last to settle.

But last spring some of the pauses had been longer. It was as if he were trying to retrieve something way down there. Sometimes what he came up with seemed out of the blue. Zen talks are like that, make sudden leaps. But I’d wondered.”

Find out more on David Guy’s website

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