The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
St Martin’s Press, 2016
320 pages – Amazon
John Gardner said that there are only two main structures in novels: one in which the main character goes on a journey and one in which a stranger comes to town and impacts the characters’ life. The Summer That Melted Everything falls squarely into the latter category. Here, the stranger is devil himself.
From the setting and initial characters’ introductions, it is clear that Tiffany McDaniel is setting us up for a discourse on morality and retribution. For example, our protagonist’s father’s name is Autopsy Bliss. His grandmother is described as an orthodox Christian who lived her life tip-toeing around the devil whom she found everywhere, even in something as banal as a particularly strong gust of wind or the erratic heartbeat of a nearby jogger. “Grandmother needed to hear the spook of the snake so she could better believe it actually existed,” we’re told. If you still had an iota of doubt about where this story is headed, McDaniel’s decision to initiate all her chapters with lines from Paradise Lost should make it crystal clear that this is a contemplation of the essential virtue and sins of man.
The elegiac style of the story, narrated by an elderly, dejected Fielding Bliss, foreshadows some immense tragedy that will irrevocably change his life. Wheels are set into motion when Fielding’s father has a letter published in the local newspaper, inviting the devil to visit him. The devil turns out to be a wide-eyed, strange little boy called Sal, who has a mysterious past and a peculiar outlook on life. Needless to say, in this case, Sal’s reputation precedes him. As Fielding Bliss states, “If the devil was going to come, I expected to see the myth of him.” It’s hard not to attach connotations to the boy’s character and that is exactly what everyone in the town does. Barring the Bliss family, who immediately accepts Sal as one of their own, he is treated with immense suspicion and given a wide berth by some, like Elohim, a midget who has lost his wife and walks around with that grief like a black cloud over his head. He tells Sal, “You keep sayin’ you’re the devil, and one of these days, someone’s gonna believe you. Then whatcha gonna do? You’re either gonna be the leader of their belief or the victim of it. Both are dangerous things.” Later on, Elohim becomes the leader of the pack that galvanizes the town people against Sal.
There are other peculiar characters too. Fielding’s mother is an agoraphobic who has renovated the house and named each room after a country she wants to visit. She has literally made her own little world. Then there’s his brother, Grand, who is facing identity dissonance, which has grave repercussions later in the novel.
The book deals with prejudice, mob mentality, and the precarious balance between good and evil. I felt that despite all the theological allusions and jabs at poetic prose, McDaniel’s writing comes off as overly ambitious and contrived. There are insightful passages and thought-provoking ideas scattered throughout, specially regarding grief and how we are the architects of our own personal hells, but they are few and far in between. The rest of the book comes off as relentlessly bleak, without much context or depth, and it’s predictable. All the tropes employed teeter towards being gimmicky, resulting in a bland prose. The stranger-arrives-in-town structure has been hashed and rehashed so many times, in all possible genres of movies and books, that it takes something truly unique to make this formula work, especially when it’s deployed so directly. Here, however, the self-indulgent prose prevents the story from gaining a life of its own.
There’s a bevy of tragedies and the worse part is, I could trace the trajectory of narrative arcs beforehand, since they were so obvious, so there was no real element of surprise left.
McDaniel has a tendency to aim for overly crafted sentences and a lyrical vernacular that came off as strained. For instance: “We build chimneys and towers and steeples. In essence, we are buildin’ and erectin’ starts to heaven.” Another drawback was how there was almost no sense of place or era. Aside from a few 80s references, there was no real evocation of that time, another little detail which could have worked in her favor.
My biggest niggle was with the glib depiction of Sal. Later on in the book, Sal gets subjected to increasingly vitriolic treatment by the community people and it won’t be a spoiler, since it is alluded to throughout the book, that he does not meet a happy end. However, all the discrimination he goes through evokes no sympathy in the reader. We are told, rather than shown, of his innocence and ‘goodness’ by way of rhetorical monologues which he indulges in from time to time. There are a series of anecdotes showing how Sal changed every life he touched with his compassion and world-weary perspectives on things. I felt McDaniel went a little overboard with portraying Sal as altruistic. Instead of coming off as earnest, his character was made out to be some sort of a substitute therapist who goes along his way ‘curing’ people of their chronic sadness.
On the plus side, the characterization of the Fielding parents was extremely mature and articulate and was one of the high points of the book. Their grief, after a particularly harrowing tragedy, is evocatively expressed and I would have liked to see a more insightful depiction of that aspect of the story. I think this book had a very interesting premise, and it was clever to place the story amidst a heatwave, factoring in the effects of unabated, sweltering heat on people’s psychology, but the execution of the plot didn’t live up to its promise.