the summer that melted everything

The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel

St. Martin's Press has always been one of my favourite publishers. Their publications are always top notch and warrant a second glance. When McDaniel's debut novel flickered on my radar, I was intrigued by the synopsis. When I realized that it is published by St. Martin's, I was sold. 

Such assumptions can, of course, not always fulfill one's expectations.

In this case, however, my loyalty to St. Martin's was richly rewarded. 

Reading The Summer over the last couple of weeks has been rather surreal. It's set in the summer of 1984 with incredibly oppressive heat just crushing the inhabitants of Breathed ("Breath-ed"), Ohio. I'm in Salt Lake, so we don't have the humidity as in Ohio, but the daily temperature has consistently been 97 degrees or above for the last three or four weeks. To muddle through this miserable weather while reading about a summer of hell was an interesting and highly apropos experience. McDaniel excels at setting the environment, both outside and inside Fielding Bliss' home.

The Summer That Melted Everything is magical realism. I have to wonder whether the author or other readers would fully agree with me on this assessment, but I found certain elements to be undeniably magical realism. 

While The Summer is set in 1984, the claustrophobic, small-town world, the characters populating it, and the activities of the boys make it feel quite a bit older, sometimes by decades. Sometimes it even has that fantastical feeling you get with magical realism where it's both solid, grounded every day life... but set perhaps even in another world or another dimension/version of our own. 

The boy who (seemingly) randomly just shows up in town, claiming to be the devil, Sal, has a maturity and insight unheard for a boy of thirteen or fourteen years old. Don't get me wrong - I am frequently annoyed by reviewers claiming that children in some books wouldn't think/act like their purported age (see: Flavia de Luce series) and this would be for a couple of different reasons: sometimes not giving real children enough credit, and also taking into consideration that many novels could be seen as being told by (or could be inferred to be told by) an older, wiser narrator reflecting on their childhood. But Sal repeatedly seems preternatural, speaking and acting in a way beyond even what one might expect from a boy forged from his experiences. This was anything but a negative to me but I imagine some readers reading without an acceptance of a magical realism element might be put off by this. 

My third claim to magical realism for this excellent debut is McDaniel's often strange, twisty, elegant language. It's unique, with certainty, and every once in a while it can be disconcerting, as in this passage where, after reading it three or four times, I was still left with, "What??":

"All love leads to cannibalism. I know that now. Sooner or later, our hearts will devour, if not the object of our affections, our very selves. Teeth are the heart's miracle. That a mouth should burst forth on that organ without throat and crave another's flesh, another's heart, is nothing short of a miracle."

Here, please allow me to put forth a couple of caveats: St Martin's provided an advanced reading copy for my review (the novel's release date is July 26, 2016). I do not always quote from advanced copies because there's always the possibility that changes can be made proceeding the publication date. I'm quoting here because I find some of the language to be poetic, eloquent, finely wrought and want to share because I feel they provide great examples of what you'll be getting into with this novel. Just be aware that changes could be made. As well, maybe you read that paragraph and have no qualms. I certainly didn't with these other passages I selected:

"Summer in Breathed was my favorite season of all. Nothing but barefoot boys and grass-stained girls flowering beneath the trees. My favorite summer sight was those trees. Whether up in the hills or down around the houses, trees were Breathed. Some were old, and they squatted, clothed in heavy moss and time like they were enduring Neanderthals who should not exist. Others were timelessly modern, smooth and lean and familiars to twine."

"At one time he had been engaged, but his fiancée drowned in 1956. Though her body was recovered from the Atlantic and buried in Breathed, he lived as if she were by his side and not low and deep and slowly disappeared by the soft power of the worms."

"She didn't say anything, just threw her arms around him. It was like a cold burning between them. Their skeletons joined at soggy throbs. The space they filled before us, like twisted wire, embedding into itself. They were one grasp. One curve of flesh. One heart breaking in startled, flickering cracks."

Things I didn't love about The Summer: scattered passages similar to the first example I provided, where it felt like the twistiness of the language was perhaps taken just a bit too far so as to be confusing, and to pull me from the story trying to figure it out. Also, I felt somewhat uncomfortable by an element of the characterization of the primary antagonist in the novel - it feels like a physical abnormality is highlighted as part of his darkness, but there was never really a point at which I felt like this was a part of his motivation, or at least not strong enough to be a part of his motivation, to highlight this abnormality as contributing to his darkness. Since this has been done to real people with the condition, it felt a bit like an unnessary and outdated stereotype.        

Things I did love about The Summer: McDaniel's tense and original writing, the darkness and depth, and the questions surrounding Sal, the boy claiming to be the devil. While he is most frequently portrayed as more of a fallen angel - kind, generous - rather than a straight devil, there are actually moments in which you realize that some of his actions could be seen as either good or bad, intentional or unintentional. There's also the possibility of Fielding, the protagonist and the boy who brings Sal home with him, as either being an unreliable narrator or at the least an unreliable observer, and this tension just adds richness and layers of patina to this engrossing debut.