At the Michigan Songwriters' Festival at the Ark last January, Ann Arbor native Steve Amick sang "I'm Sorry for You (If You Don't Live Here)," his rousing and only slightly ironic chronicling of a few of the often acquired pleasures of living in this particular part of the planet. Now Pantheon has published his first novel, The Lake, the River, and the Other Lake, which is, among several other things, a celebration of a long lazy summer on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Amick's story is set in the fictitious town of Weneshkeen, a small place populated, particularly in the summer, with a cast of characters that cuts through the American grain. Although the town lives only in the imaginations of its author and his readers, it is probably somewhere north of Ludington and south of Sleeping Bear. If you've ever driven that coastline in June or August, you'll recognize it.
But the novel's real appeal is its characters. Roger Drinkwater, an Ojibwa and a former Navy Seal who served in Vietnam, uses his knowledge of the area and of explosives to wreak havoc on local Jet Skis. His friend Janey, a deputy passed over for promotion to sheriff because of her gender and her status as a "local," knows what Roger is up to but chooses not to act on that knowledge. Gene Reecher, recently retired, after the death of his wife, from his long service as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, finds himself troublingly attracted to the teenage girl teaching him to do e-mail. There's a twenty-one-year-old dotcom billionaire who is planning to make his next fortune selling the local drink, "sumac lemonade." There's the heartless teenage beauty from Chicago whose lovemaking is literally an earth-shaking catastrophe. And I haven't even touched on the family that runs the local cherry orchard. Then there are the mysterious lights that appear in the sky and the uncertain, almost mystical presence of an unseen celebrity hovering over everyone's summer tales. And a haunted house that might have belonged to Al Capone. All of these things will make you laugh, and a few of the people will make you cry.
At one point some members of a farm family are thinking about planting more varied produce. "We don't exactly have anything very exotic in our vegetable garden," one of them complains. The curmudgeonly patriarch responds, "On account of we don't live in an exotic land." But that father learns differently, and Steve Amick's particular gift to his readers is to show us the local mysteries we tend to overlook. He makes ordinariness exotic.
Steve Amick reads from The Lake, the River, and the Other Lake at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Thursday, May 5, and at the Ann Arbor Book Festival on Saturday, May 21.