Review: The Summer That Melted Everything
The Summer That Melted Everything
A young black boy, around 13 years old, arrives along with a blast of heat in the town of Breathed, Ohio, in the summer of 1984. Sal is bruised, skinny, dressed in ragged overalls, with a curiously direct way of speech.
He might even be the answer to the town's prosecuting attorney's invitation to the Devil, if he does indeed exist, to come to the town.
Tiffany McDaniel's novel The Summer That Melted Everything is a hybrid of Stephen King and The Pilgrim's Progress. Small town Ohio swelters in the heatwave. Lawns turn brown, drug-store chocolate melts and the air conditioning struggles.
Characters with names like Autopsy Bliss, Grayson Elohim, and Dresden Delmar all hint at some greater allegoric narrative. This is American Gothic at its best.
The mid-1980s in Breathed (pronounced Breath-ed) is evoked with perfect period detail, from phone booths to clothing choices and pop-culture references. Breathed, however, is anything but a place of innocence, and Sal is the catalyst who sets in play a series of escalating events that reveal the dark at the heart of town.
Fielding Bliss, another 13-year-old boy, is the novel's central character, who meets Sal on his arrival in Breathed and takes him home. It is a friendship right out of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, except it is set in a vastly more sinister world.
Fielding's father is a prosecuting attorney consumed by a wrongful verdict. His mother is an ombrophobic, with such a fear of rain she cannot leave the house. Fielding's brother, Grand, seems the perfect baseball-playing teenage boy, but his athletic ease and charm conceals a hidden fear.
They are surrounded by equally idiosyncratic neighbours. Grayson Elohim is a small sharp-toothed vegetarian, whose mourning for a lost wife has eaten up his life. Dresden Delmar is a red-haired 13-year-old girl with one leg and a rose-growing mother who is obsessed with perfection.
McDaniel takes these people and constructs a novel of parables, always hinting at a greater wisdom. What might appear grotesque in summary, somehow feels right in context. Through her odd gallery of characters, McDaniel opens up a thought-provoking world powered by increasing suspense.
Despite an occasional misstep, The Summer That Melted Everything builds to a harrowing and explosive climax that has much to teach us about human fears and mass hysteria. It is a novel that deals with the rites of passage of adolescence, race, discrimination, HIV/AIDS, lynch mobs, love, and the times in which we live.
It is a powerful debut.