I wouldn't have anticipated that a story set in the small Ohio town of Breathed in 1984, with a whimsical premise and heavily quirky details (example: characters with names like Autopsy Bliss and Dresden Delmar), would turn out to be one of the best books I've read, so far, in 2016, and certainly one of the best published this year. But here we are. I am very, very glad I took a chance on this book.
The aforementioned Autopsy Bliss, a lawyer, publishes an provocative article in the local newspaper (bearer of another quirky moniker: The Breathanian). It's addressed to the devil – 'Sir Satan, Lord Lucifer, and all other crosses you bear' – and extends a cordial invitation, politely summoning him to the town. The next day, Autopsy's thirteen-year-old son, Fielding, is stopped in his tracks by a bruised, raggedy boy dressed in shabby overalls. After asking whether there's any ice cream, the mysterious boy says he's there because he was invited, and pulls the newspaper piece from his pocket.
It seems a foregone conclusion that the boy will follow Fielding home, and when his family can't be traced, there he stays. In time he acquires the name Sal, which he picks because it invokes 'the beginning of Satan and the first step into Lucifer. Sa-L.' And there are many suggestions of the uncanny about Sal: his lengthy, incongruously wise monologues, the strange stories he tells about God and Hell and the people there, the inexplicable breadth of his knowledge. Not to mention the fact that after he shows up, Breathed is enveloped by a heatwave that begins to seem endless. In an atmosphere of mounting paranoia and violent heat, Sal becomes a lightning rod for the fears of the townspeople, whose passions are stoked by a self-appointed preacher. It's no surprise (and no spoiler either) that a sense of inevitable tragedy suffuses the whole narrative.
Fielding Bliss tells this story many years later, as a profoundly lonely man in his eighties. The timeline and his age suggest Fielding's 'present day' is circa 2055, but that doesn't mean it has some sort of dystopian bent, as stories set in the near future so often do; there's no suggestion of a world much altered from the one we're in now. There is little in the way of a plotline around Fielding's later life. He is simply the storyteller; but as he drops in anecdotes about his life since those days, we are left in no doubt that the summer of Sal has stamped an indelible mark on his soul.
Just before I jumped from the plane, I promised myself if I landed on only the yellow blooms, I would take it as a sign of my ghosts allowing me peace. With that peace, I would no longer suffer in the worst shadow of the snake. I would stop skinning peaches. Cease all mad damage. I'd bring an end to splintering my knuckles against picket fences and running chainsaws through rows of American corn. I'd sweeten my heart. Be gentled by the small of a lover's back. I'd no longer scrape my spine against cinder blocks nor cannibalize myself in perfect bites. I'd get rid of my stash of horns and keep hell out of the honey. I would learn how to say June, July, August, September without scream and as one word. Forgiveness.
The Summer That Melted Everything is gorgeously written – lush, shimmering, strange prose more often like a poem or a song lyric than regular fiction. Fielding sometimes seems to talk in riddles; sometimes, as in the passage above, it's not necessarily evident whether he's speaking literally or metaphorically. The narrative is chock-full of unusual metaphors, and every so often they're metaphors that don't really work but end up sounding beautiful anyway. The end result is deeply beguiling, and potent: I felt completely transported to the Breathed of the 1980s, a weird collision of small-town Southern traditions (and prejudices) and the bright, outlandish fashions of the decade, a town where, in Fielding's words, 'everything seems neon lit'. Reading the book on typically grey English days did nothing to hinder its effectiveness in portraying a sweltering, suffocating summer.
Despite its quirkiness and suggestions of fantasy, Melted contains one of the most tender and heartbreaking stories I have ever read about platonic love, particularly the relationship between brothers. It wasn't really until I finished reading the book that I realised exactly how many tricky, contentious topics the story covers – sexuality, disability, religion, loneliness, ageing, phobias, prejudice, HIV/AIDS – the list goes on, but the book really doesn't feel as though it's 'addressing issues'. Probably its greatest achievement is hiding all of that in plain sight, avoiding being preachy or not ringing true.
Ever since reading Melted, I've kept having these occasional flashbacks to just how good, how evocative, how moving it was, how clearly I could picture Breathed and how deeply I was drawn in by Sal and the Bliss family. I was so consumed by this book that it feels like a memory, like something I've seen. I can't wait for other readers to start discovering it. I try not to trot out that book-review cliche – saying I feel envious of those who are yet to read it for the first time – too often, but in this case it's not just hyperbole. Even if it doesn't sound like your sort of thing, I urge you to give it a try, and I hope you fall in love with it like I did.
I received an advance review copy of The Summer That Melted Everything from the publisher through NetGalley.
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