After finishing The Summer Son, I began wandering my balcony (it's actually the roof, but I prefer to call it a balcony), wracked by two contradictory reactions at once, which, for a book reviewer, is not a good sign. My thoughts were:
1.) This is an unusually probing, terrifically paced character study;
2.) This is a hyperbolic, badly conceived novel.
I kept reminding myself that I would not begin a review on such a vague note. A few days and much balcony-wandering later, however, my analysis remained unchanged. Let me explain.
In his second published novel (his first was the acclaimed 600 Hours of Edward), Billings resident Craig Lancaster has written an uneasy saga of secrets, frustration, sudden violence and generational angst; in other words, he's written a book about family. Once again Lancaster shows himself an astute psychologist of people coping with elusive problems, in a book that proves memory is just as insurmountable as any mental illness.
The summer son and narrator of the title is Mitch Quillen, a man struggling with his existence as a father, a husband and, especially as a son. After some cryptic phone calls from his irascible father, Jim, Mitch travels to Billings to confront his past and uncover a mystery that has been plaguing him since boyhood.
"Now I was going away," Mitch confides, "because I hadn't tried enough or succeeded enough. Because my father had wrenched an opening in our lives big enough for my wife to push me through." So commences Mitch Quillen's descent into bad recollections, during which an 11-year-old Mitch joins his father's drilling crew, connects with older brother Jerry, meets some new friends and survives a series of unwholesome situations that would turn anyone into a frazzled neurotic.
Bouncing between Mitch's discontented adulthood (marital strife, unsavory job, aloof father) and part of the summer of 1979 (spent mainly watching his father enraged), Lancaster's tale follows the double trajectory of past and present, as Mitch pieces together why Jim was/is a terrible father, while backtracking to show just how terrible a father Jim really was/is. Altogether, it's a fine balancing act, supported by the author's taut structure. As Jim's combustible, blue-collar rage threatens to engulf everyone in his vicinity, Mitch unearths much more than he intended. And none of it is pleasant.
The major problems of the novel seem to reside in the middle chapters, adding superficial layers to Jim: Jerry flees for the Marines, Mitch's stepmother leaves Jim, Jim sinks into alcoholism, punches some people and takes on a drifter who will go on to give the book its final revelation. But unless one is stimulated by the ins and outs of drilling for natural gas or needlessly obfuscating conversations between father and son, there is nothing here of substance. The "twists" that are supposed to propel the action forward are not so much classic shifts of fate as theatrical upheavals. Instead of getting a pie in the face, we are hit on the back of the head with a bakery.
Dramatic? Yes. Convincing? No.
Likewise, halfway through you have a pretty strong inkling that the author has planned some massively redeeming episode to explain Jim's degeneracy, but by the time he gets around to forgiving Jim on behalf of Mitch, it's too late: For the reader, he's already unforgivable. Except as Lancaster's attempt to pile on Jim's vile attributes in order to make his eventual vindication reverberate, several dozen intervening pages could have been scissored away and left a far more powerful work.
Still, Lancaster is superb at characterization, writing in a practical idiom that is perfect for capturing the intricacies of parental cruelty and love. Although Mitch comes off as a somewhat grating wreck, Jim is intimately crafted, an all-too-human working class guy in the throes of a dirty history that he cannot escape; entirely unlikeable, but almost cathartically satisfying. Lancaster's great feat in The Summer Son though, is how straightforwardly he presents a story with all the elements of an ultra-depressed indie tragedy—existential brooding, brutality, anger, heartbreak, etc.—and somehow makes it entertaining. Like Jim Quillen, it is unpolished, not without its irreconcilable flaws and, occasionally, enlightening.
Whatever its faults (over-ambitious plotting at the expense of naturalistic storytelling comes to mind), this book is a fitfully insightful prompt that dormant secrets are always an inch away, ready to destroy or to transform. Someone once remarked that you can get over anything except childhood, and Lancaster illustrates this point with an abundance of stark honesty in the tormented form of Jim Quillen. All in all, The Summer Son is a story about extraordinarily authentic individuals somehow maneuvering in a painfully cinematic world.
Craig Lancaster reads from The Summer Son at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, April 19, at 7 PM. Free.