The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel [A Review]

The Summer That Melted Everything explores the racial and sexual prejudice unleashed in the small town of Breathed, Ohio, when a young boy claiming to be the devil arrived in 1984. As soon as he arrives a heat wave that lasts months scorches the town while strange occurrences follow the boy. The tension rises with the temperature as personal demons are exposed, long held resentments find their voice and two young boys find themselves up against a fanatic. Both sides certain the other will deliver disaster. To be released next week, The Summer That Melted Everything is an ambitious and impressive debut from Tiffany McDaniel.

The Summer That Melted Everything

Autopsy Bliss is a prosecutor in the small Ohio town of Breathed. Married, with two teenage sons, Autopsy is a man of high standing in his small community as a just man of the law. Raised by his pious mother, who named him Autopsy from the Greek for ‘to see for oneself’, Autopsy found that the courtroom served his desire to see justice done better than the church. Though, with the passing of the years, the cases he has had to deal with have come to haunt him and his faith in the court has been dented. Once, after the case of a young girl who was beaten to death by her parents, Autopsy goes to an out of town bar and picks a fight with some bikers who duly beat him up. If you were to ask him why he did it, his answer would be ‘I had to see for myself’.

It may have been a similar impulse that caused him, in 1984, to write a letter, published in the local paper, inviting the devil to visit Breathed. Whatever his reasons, neither he, his family or his town are prepared when the devil shows up.

The devil arrives in the form of a young black boy, about 13 years old, going by the name Sal. Thin, barefoot and in worn overalls, with startling green eyes, Sal waits outside the courthouse for the man who invited him. The courthouse, though, is closed and it is Autopsy’s younger son, Fielding, who takes Sal home to his father.

If looks were to be believed, he still was just a boy. Something of my age, though from his solemn quietude, I knew he was old in the soul. A boy whose black crayon would be the shortest in his box.

Though they welcome him into their home, the Bliss family are not about to believe that this boy is really the devil and Autopsy, with the town Sheriff, is eager to find Sal’s parents and return him home. But Sal has a way of unnerving those who doubt his claim that he is the devil. He answers their questions – what it Hell like? What is God like? – with an eloquence that catches them off guard. Sal has an answer for every question; metaphors and parables of a poetry that can be taken for wisdom. Those who have never questioned the beliefs of others, let alone their own, even a prosecutorial lawyer, are ill-equipped to disturb the illusion the beauty of his fables has constructed.

Equally unsettling is Sal’s ability to detect unhappiness and fear, to know everyone’s secrets. He actively seeks out those living in paralysis.

Elsewhere, the people of Breathed have even less doubt of the devil’s presence. Their easy acceptance reveals prejudices long held but scarcely aroused. Sal’s appearance coincides with the arrival of a heat wave. In the unrelenting heat, crops fail, livestock die, tempers fray, common sense wilts and those deeply held prejudices bubble to the surface. When Sal’s overtures are followed by tragedy, you can almost hear the pitchforks being fetched.

The townspeople find a leader in Grayson Elohim, a man convinced of Sal’s evil from the moment he saw him. Soon secret meetings, directed by Elohim, are taking place in the woods. Fielding finds himself torn between Elohim, a man who is almost a second father figure to him, and Sal, the black boy Elohim hates on sight who is quickly becoming Fielding’s best friend.

Meanwhile, Autopsy and the Sheriff are no closer to finding Sal’s true identity. Instead, they have uncovered a pattern of missing black boys from surrounding towns. Disappearances that have been ignored by the press and by the authorities who dismissed them as runaways.

Being the devil made him a target, but it also meant he had a power he didn’t have when he was just a boy. People looked at him, listened to what he said. Being the devil made him important. Made him visible. And isn’t that the biggest tragedy of all? When a boy has to be the devil in order to be significant?

Sal’s parables too begin to betray a history of poverty, depression, domestic abuse and a life without hope; the hell he has escaped from.

Hope is just a beautiful instance in in the myth of the second chance.

Autopsy’s son Fielding is the narrator of The Summer That Melted Everything. The adult Fielding reminisces on that unbearably hot summer of 1984; a time of jazzercising in spandex, housewives who wore dresses with shoulder pads under their aprons, and when AIDS was suspected of being divine retribution for the sin of homosexuality. As an old man in the future (relative to 2016), a dishevelled Fielding lives a solitary existence in a trailer park and appears to be a disturbed and deranged individual between frequent bouts of drunkenness. He has spent his life escaping from the events of that summer that have haunted him ever since.

The Summer That Melted Everything is the first novel of Tiffany McDaniel, a poet and Ohio native. The novel itself is not released until next week (July 26th) but McDaniel kindly offered me early access in exchange for a review. She said she thought I may enjoy her novel, given the sort of books I typically read and review on my blog, and I think she was right and I am grateful for the opportunity.

Each chapter of The Summer That Melted Everything opens with a quote from Paradise Lost. One of Milton’s objects in writing his classic was famously to “justify the ways of God to men”. The Summer That Melted Everything is also a very ambitious work. Sal, in the answers he gives, the stories he tells, is also justifying the ways of God to men. He even shares a take on Theodicy.

Within The Summer That Melted Everything numerous issues confront the characters and the reader. Some are personal to the characters as they face their fears and prejudices and are pushed to finally move past long-held pain, grief and resentment. On another scale, the novel deals with the larger issues of homophobia and the ever present issue of race.

Readers will not miss being reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird. Autopsy has his Atticus moments though he is a more complex and troubled character than the stoic Atticus Finch. Fielding too has his Scout moments as he spies on events beyond his understanding and acts as the reader’s witness, risking the destruction of his innocence as he does so. The rendering of the dangers of mob mentality and mass hysteria in small town America will remind readers of other such evocations from The Crucible to Jaws. I wondered while I was reading, if I were more familiar with Twain and Steinbeck, would find allusions to their work as well?

Beyond the issues the novel deals with, there are two overlapping themes that I believe dominate. One is the danger of playing with fire. By inviting the devil to his small town, Autopsy has ignited a chain of events he could not have foreseen. Even doing the right thing can prove dangerous when it brings a mob ready to throw the first stone to your doorstep. The second, a major theme, is that of walking in someone else’s shoes; to see for oneself. In doing so, you may see the good within evil and the evil within good and blur the lines between right and wrong.

There is little I could fault this novel for. McDaniel’s poetry experience is clear to see. Her descriptive pieces, similes and metaphors, are inventive. There is a lot of technique on show and ample symbolism, plenty for literature students to dissect, but none of it felt forced. Though it covers controversial themes, it is not a polemic, and while it ambitiously covers much else besides, it did not overreach. I did wonder, early in the novel, if Fielding’s sometimes lyrical and poetic narration was a good fit, but this was less an issue as the novel went on and you start to feel the effect of the years Fielding has endured in tortured introspection. The tale he tells is his interpretation of the events that now define him, told in idiomatic phrases he has collected and invented over the years.

The Summer That Melted Everything is an impressive debut from a new writer. Its strengths are its imaginative plot and humanising themes, delivered in a unique style that culminates in moments of true emotional impact. Its exploration of bigotry, hysteria, moral confusion, innocence lost and tragedy in small town America may seem familiar territory, but, despite being set in 1984, as recent events show, it is an exploration that remains relevant and timely.

Update: The Summer That Melted Everything went on to win The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize for 2016!

 

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