WHAT DIES IN SUMMER
By Tom Wright
W.W Norton Publishers, 2013 ($14.95)
Reviewed by Sam Waas
I generally regard coming-of-age stories with deep skepticism. They're far too maudlin and weepy for my hard-boiled tastes. Thankfully, WHAT DIES IN SUMMER, the personal narrative of a teenage Dallas boy, is a long ways from such overwrought drivel. It's instead a superb first novel by practicing PhD psychologist Tom Wright, himself a Texan.
Jim "Biscuit" Bonham is from a troubled home and living under his grandmother's care. The precise era isn't specified but from the music mentioned and the lack of Vietnam, I'd guess early 1960s. His cousin Lee Ann ("L.A.") soon comes to live with them. She, too, springs from a difficult environment but the grandmother's home is a stable refuge for L.A., sanctuary where she may begin to heal. Biscuit and L.A. are of the same age and quickly become inseparable. They roam through the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, having the sort of teenage adventures often seen in this type of novel.
That's where the similarity to typical (and insufferable) adolescent stories ends, however. WDIS is an extraordinary, intelligent, and eloquent glimpse into the human mind, culture, and ethos, how a young man is enhanced or occasionally devolved by his experiences and environment.
The narrative and dialogue are quite simply a masterpiece. I cannot remember any recent book that fell as perfectly upon the reader's ear. There's exceptionally inventive metaphor in the novel, truly unique. A few examples: Two nuns staring "...like penguin detectives...", "...feeling like I'd just had my heart licked by a hyena...", "...he was a big, hearty pink man who looked as if he'd been squirted down into his clothes like a drive-in ice cream...", and "...rain tapped at the window and dragged its weak fingers down the glass..."
But these clever quotes only hint at the wordcraft of this premiere novel. The entire work is essentially flawless in its modern English prose, meticulously constructed, the sentences flowing easily. It's one of those rare books where you find yourself turning back a few pages to re-read and savor the grace and elegance of the author's skill.
Often, novels written by those with careers in other areas may prove a challenge. A science fiction story from a legitimate scientist may degenerate into a physics lecture, a novel by a cleric might become a thinly veiled sermon. And a psychologist's novel? A dry and lifeless treatise upon Freud, perhaps. But not here. This novel is as fresh and energetic as any other fully mature story from a seasoned author.
The plot itself is fascinating, too. Most events are of the ordinary, common, and everyday stock of any teenager's experience, a few are beyond the pale of what we might each be exposed to. But throughout, Wright maintains superb control of his characters and his subject. The people are authentic, solid, human, and realistic, the story rings true.
But a mystery? Well, technically, WDIS may be considered beneath the big tent of the mystery genre. There's a gruesome murder and other crimes. Some are solved, some not. Regardless, I was undeterred that the plotline in general isn't so much concerned with solving a mystery as with providing a gleaming look inside the mind of a young person slowly asserting himself and gaining a handhold upon adulthood.
I cannot recommend this novel strongly enough. Young people and adults alike will enjoy the book. I'd gently caution that some of the language and descriptions are clearly "R" rated and therefore may not be suitable for the youngest teens. Otherwise, WHAT DIES IN SUMMER is an exceptional novel that will immediately charm and fascinate any reader. It's a keeper.
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