By Katy Goodwin-Bates
The Summer That Melted Everything is the kind of book that I’d be quite happy to not review. I’d like to sort of sneak it into people’s hands without telling them anything about it so that I can conduct secret psychological experiments on them based on their reactions. I’d read the synopsis and then forgotten what it said by the time I came to read it, and I feel like this was an excellent way to experience it.
Perhaps because they belonged to me, I will say that the ’80s were as best as any time to grow up in. I think too they were a good time to meet the devil. Particularly that June day in 1984, when the sky seemed to be made on the kitchen counter, the clouds scattering like spilled flour.
If, however, you feel like you need a bit more information than just my vague, personal recommendation (I’m going to try not to be hurt by that), then here you go: the bulk of the book’s action takes place in the scorching summer of 1984 in the small town of Breathed, Ohio. Narrator Fielding’s father places an advert in the local newspaper, cordially inviting the devil for a visit but doesn’t expect his invitation to be met by the arrival of a thirteen-year-old boy who calls himself Sal, and whose presence coincides with a series of strange and terrible accidents in the town. These main events of the book are interspersed with Fielding as a reclusive adult, brewing from the start a sense that catastrophe lurks in 1984.
Small towns and family melodrama are a winning combination for me, so there was much for me to enjoy here aside from the supernatural goings-on and mystery surrounding whether Sal is really Lucifer himself or just a runaway; he’s obsessed with ice cream which seems to me like it could be evidence of either possibility. Fielding’s mother is agoraphobic, fixated on decorating the rooms of the family home to reflect the sights of the wider world but too terrified of rain to actually leave the house. His brother, Grand, is a high-school baseball star with dreams of a scholarship; bearing in mind what you know of this book by now, you can take a guess at how well that turns out. Fielding’s father has possibly the greatest name I’ve ever encountered–Autopsy Bliss–and is perhaps how Atticus Finch would have turned out in a less sentimental story. Actually, it would be fair to describe The Summer That Melted Anything as a messed-up To Kill A Mockingbird; it has the vignettes of local characters and even shares some of the descriptions of heat so vivid you feel like you need a cold beverage while reading it. Autopsy is even a lawyer, although on the other side of the courtroom to Harper Lee’s heroic benchmark of fictional litigators.
“You know where the name hell came from.” He crossed his hands on his lap. “After I fell, I kept repeating to myself, God will forgive me. God will forgive me. Centuries of repeating this, I started to shorten it to He’ll forgive me. Then finally to one word, He’ll. He’ll.
Somewhere along the way, I lost that apostrophe and now it’s only Hell. But hidden along in that one word is God will forgive me. God will forgive me. That is what is behind my door, you understand. A world of no apostrophes and, therefore, no hope.”
(As an English teacher and grammar purist, I share Sal’s lugubrious equating of punctuation with positivity.)
Here in the UK, The Summer That Melted Everything made the shortlist for The Guardian newspaper’s ‘Not the Booker’ prize and, having read all six of the novels which did make the Man Booker list, I am confident in saying McDaniel’s linguistic acrobatics outrank at least three of those works. In the first few chapters of scene-setting, the writing is, at times, astonishing; I found myself noting down sentences in the same way that one might take photos of rainbows or sunsets, just to marvel at them again later. It’s a bold move to start each chapter with an epitaph from John Milton’s Paradise Lost and a lesser writer may suffer from the comparison, but McDaniel has no such worries.
August was. A housewife taken in for heatstroke. A nursing home put on a bus for the next town. A pepper in the mouth. Another cow dead. Another fly landed. A woman cutting her hair – cuts to get cool, they called them. A fury. A baby crying but not heard over the fans.
Here’s something that confused me about The Summer That Melted Everything. It is, quite possibly, the most Southern Gothic thing I have ever read; it’s full of delusional characters, potentially supernatural occurrences and half the characters sound like they’re from a caricatured Alabama. Someone starts a weird quasi-religious sect and starts handling snakes. The Southern Gothic is seriously strong here. But it’s set in Ohio. I may not be from the US, but I have been there and I do have access to maps; by my reckoning, Ohio is not the South. I’ve seen some bitter debate about this issue on Goodreads, covering issues like authenticity and stereotyping and, you know, basic geography. I am quite a fan of Southern Gothic, and not a geographical pedant, so I wasn’t overly perturbed by this. But maybe my good Ohio-based friends at the GPL can help me out with this one.
As a debut novel, The Summer That Melted Everything is almost frighteningly commanding. Never less than enthralling from the first page to the last, it’s a strong contender to be the most interesting novel I’ve read this year and I’ll be eager to see what McDaniel does next with this dizzying talent.