A lush jungle of garden – and if it is Eden, it is before, within and after the Fall.
Tiffany McDaniel’s first novel The Summer That Melted Everything is a strange, unforgettable and wondrous one. It was a choice by my online bookclub, and has rather secured my continuing membership, as, in this case, it presented me with a book I would never have come to from my own reading preferences, and which hooked me from the off.
In fact, being honest, none of the choices-to-choose-from drew me from blurb alone, but it was the ‘Look Inside’ facility which made me sit up instantly and see ‘this woman WRITES’, so it got my vote, and I was immediately sucked into the centrifugal whirlpool of McDaniel’s strange, hot, summer of 1984 Ohio world :
The heat came with the devil. It was the summer of 1984, and while the devil had been invited, the heat had not
Wha….a..t?! The devil invited, the heat not invited……who? Who has invited the devil? Why has the devil been invited……..and, you can see, I needed to know
McDaniel started with a sinister, compulsive and alluring drum-roll there, and her densely packed, image filled writing – a quite marked individual voice – grabbed me by the throat.
Okay here is setting, narrator, and sketch of the journey’s beginning and a loose laying out of terrain – but as the power, shock and particular unfolding can only happen for each reader, reading the bookmap for themselves, you need to bring your own (possibly violently swinging as you will be traversing through areas of magnetic interference) moral compass
I once heard someone refer to Breathed as the scar of the paradise we lost. So it was in many ways, a place with a perfect wound just below the surface.
It was a resting in the southern low of Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where each porch had an orchard of small talk and rocking chairs, where cigarette tongues flapped over glasses of lemonade
Fielding Bliss is a 13 year old boy, son of a small town lawyer, Autopsy Bliss. And I nearly wrote Atticus Finch there, by mistake (more later) Fielding is, we quickly see, younger son in a happy, quirky family. He idolises his popular, kindly, widely admired-and/or desired older brother Grand, star of the baseball team, self-taught speaker of Russian, just because little brother Fielding tells him he has ‘Russian eyes’. Mom is a beautiful and warm woman….except a little damaged, as she has agoraphobia, and can’t go outside her house for fear of rain. And, it turns out, no real spoiler here, as it is revealed only a couple of pages in – it is Autopsy who has invited the devil by placing an ad in The Breathanian, the local newspaper of Breathed, Ohio.
Summer in Breathed was my favourite season of all. Nothing but barefoot boys and grass-stained girls flowering beneath the trees
Fielding is the first person narrator of the events of that strange, melting summer. He is also the one who first meets that devil, or, perhaps, the one who first meets a small boy of his own age, impoverished and hungry, who claims to be the devil, and is desperately wanting ice cream.
Yes, I know, strange, weird, but, believe me, not random, not weird-for-the-sake-of-bizarre. McDaniel knows exactly where she is going to take us, and everything we think we need to know (and much we had no idea we were going to need to know) will be revealed.And, I fully expect along the way you will shiver in shock and terror, bark in appreciation at the oddball humour, weep in despair, and be riven by pity and rage.
Again, no spoiler, because this will come quite early. Fielding is not writing his story in real time – this happy boy is being looked back to from behind the eyes of an elderly, bitter, self-hating and broken man. The journey will take us from the then of 1984 to some seventy years later, and a trailer park.
Some startling comparisons have been made, by readers, professional and those like us to mark out the territory McDaniel’s book occupies – Shirley Jackson, AND Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. And I would like to add one of my own – Carson McCullers – who was (I quote Wiki here) ‘often described as Southern Gothic, …..explores the spiritual isolation of misfits and outcasts’
Generally I find myself harrumphing in disbelief at these kinds of comparisons. Not here. The Jackson comparison is apt for the wonderful combination of horror, a strange, dysfunctional world and sometimes savage, dark humour. Mockingbird gives us the child of a small-town lawyer, and events triggered by a small town mentality of suspicion and fear of the outsider which might go along with the better aspects of small-everyone-knows-everyone community. And the dark effects of small-town mentality also expose something which has wider, more pertinent effects country, and even, world wide. More later. As for McCullers, it is the mix of tenderness and brutality, both within the misfits, between the misfits, and towards the misfits – who, surely, are everyone
You say, ‘Momma, I just want more. I want to fly like the sudden light. I want to know what it’s like to have a reason to dance. I want all the possible love’
She says people like us don’t dance and we don’t fly. People like us, she says, don’t get more. We take the life we are given and we say grace and glory be to God who is His merciful wisdom has granted such bliss. You hate her God and His wisdom. You hate her acceptance of that empty life.
Added to this mix, quotations from Milton’s Paradise Lost at every chapter head nod us back to that complex portrayal of the devil. Milton is always reminding us Satan, Lucifer is fallen angel. The small boy who has arrived in Breathed in response to Autopsy’s invitation, takes the sobriquet Sal – Sa for Satan, the devil, and L for Lucifer, the reminder of the original, angelic light filled (lucent) angel before fall. There are other names belonging to other characters within the book that we might need to reflect on. Who is good, who is not good, what is evil, and who might be evil and how might evil move amongst us. And what of God, and who, and what, and who might be and how might goodness/Godness move amongst us
And all this complexity is twined and hooked into wondrous writing, as I hope my quotes have illustrated
The further I read, the more I was thinking of the political events of the year, of the move towards a kind of global suspicious, fear-filled, small town isolationism – particularly on both sides of our ponds, but also wider. I had read that McDaniel writes in a kind of fermenting heat, and completes a first draft remarkably quickly. This book was published in June, so, putting those facts together I was assuming that the impulse of the book was very rooted in the events of this year, in the States, and the unleashing of dark populism. It was one of the questions I asked McDaniel, as she was invited to our on-line book group discussion, but, no, of course it takes a book a good two years to come to publication from acceptance. All I can say is, reading this I was so aware of the politics, the Zeitgeist of now
A small cavil – yes, there are times when I think McDaniel can overwrite and the wonderfully rich layers of meaning within her writing can sometimes become a bit left dangling, in need of pruning back, clipping, tidying up or even, finished off by leading them to a clearer conclusion. And to continue with the gardening metaphor……this is a first book. If McDaniel left a few weeds in situ, which might have been dealt with to better reveal the strange beauty of some of her plants, I also appreciate the vigour and the dynamism and the unusualness of her voice. A completely sanitised writing garden with every word neatly in its border and row would not have the compulsive weird energy of this one.
And, specially for Statesiders – keen though I hope you are to instantly jump into this one – it might be worth waiting till after Christmas to get it as a present for your eReaders – it will be on a price drop promotion to $2.99. So it would definitely become worth waiting for!