The Summer That Melted Everything
It can’t be easy for a debut novelist to swim against the tide of Ferrante-esque realism. Minimalist prose is in fashion, as are elegant, pared sentences workshopped in MFA programs with great care. Tiffany McDaniel’s debut, The Summer That Melted Everything, is neither realism nor is it spare. It’s not wholly successful, but there’s a rambunctious energy and daring here that make its flaws easy to forgive.
Way back in 1984, Fielding Bliss is a white 13-year-old living in the small Ohio town of Breathed. His family is his older brother, star athlete Grand, who has taught himself Russian so he can speak it around the house; his mother, Stella, who is so petrified of rain that she doesn’t step outside ever, not even to water her prized cannas; and his father, Autopsy, the town’s prosecuting attorney.
The name Autopsy, we’re told early on, is “a relative of the word autopsia, which in the ancient vernacular of the Greeks means to see for oneself”. In the spirit of seeing for himself whether humans are alone in the universe, Autopsy writes a letter that is published on the front page of the town’s newspaper, The Breathanian, addressed to “Mr Devil, Sir Satan, Lord Lucifer, and all other crosses you bear.” It’s an invitation to visit Breathed, “Land of hills and hay bales, of sinners and forgivers.”
In response to Autopsy’s invitation, it seems Lucifer arrives in the body of a black boy in worn overalls, “so very dark and small”, asking for ice-cream. “Something of my age,” says Fielding, “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.” The family are atheists, unusual around there, and they discount his claim despite the evidence: two long scars that perfectly trace the outline of his shoulder blades, from when his wings were removed. They adopt the boy, whose parents can’t be found and whom they call Sal.
As the heatwave intensifies and a plague of tragic accidents descend on Breathed, a Satan-hunting hysteria takes over. The townsfolk are not about to sit around and let Lucifer live among them – though there’s more than a touch of plain racism in their fervour. Is Sal really the devil, or just a boy? Will he survive the pitchfork-wielding mob? Should he?
At heart, The Summer That Melted Everything is a southern Gothic bildungsroman in the form of an allegory. There’s more than a hint of Maycomb, Alabama, in Breathed, and more than a touch of Atticus Finch in Autopsy; in 50-odd years, it seems not much has changed.
Despite this terrific hook, there’s not actually a lot of plot here. Instead, there’s lots of symbolism and image systems and descriptions of the heat. Dark red stains pop up everywhere and people drown and have drowned, and there are lots of snakes and fish and fire. Roses are very significant, too, as is the melting or wilful burning of ice-cream, and it’s likely that readers with a good knowledge of the Bible would recognise more.
It’s a very busy novel. Because Stella won’t leave the house, every room is intricately decorated in the style of a different nation so she can travel the world from room to room. She funds this from the profits of her tennis-shoe factory. Fielding’s aunt Fidelia spray-dyes her hair orange and ties sections with ribbons she never removes, each one chosen to represent a woman with whom her ex-husband betrayed her. Elohim, the Bliss’s next-door neighbour who leads the lynch mob, is a dwarf and steeplejack who mourns his long-dead fiancée as the wife she never was: “When he got letters or sent them, he put in a Mrs. beside his Mr., and when he hung clothes on his line to dry, one could not help but notice the dresses and bras ... He was one half of a relationship that did not exist.”
In a more lighthearted work, all this oddity would appear as quirkiness but The Summer That Melted Everything is a dark book that connects Satanic-cult, racist and homophobic hysteria, and it’s full of tragedy and characters without the possibility of redemption. One death in particular, at the end, is deeply unsettling and it is a tribute to McDaniel that a novel so grotesque in style can still elicit genuine emotion.
Part of the problem is that it’s not actually set in 1984, the year “a group of scientists published their research in a scientific journal, revealing how they had isolated and identified a retrovirus that would come to be called HIV”. Fielding, the narrator, is old and alone, looking back upon his life, which would make it about 2055, though there’s no sense of that.
It’s difficult to get a sense of Fielding, also. He speaks like this: “If I were a man who still celebrated his birthday, there would be eighty-four candles flickering above the cake, above this life and its frightening genius, its inescapable tragedy, its summer of teeth that opened wide and consumed the little universe we called Breathed, Ohio.” When describing the sandstone hills that surround the town, however, he speaks like this: “you could find fossils of the past residents, like lizards and them bugs with all the ridges on the side”. Fielding at 84 is unrecognisable as the child. He lives alone and rejects the kindnesses of his neighbours. “My knees know I am a praying man,” he says. “The broken dishes, the empty beer bottles, the hole in the wall the size of my fist, all know I am an unanswered man.”
Some sentences and ideas in The Summer That Melted Everything are thrilling in their complexity while others seem overwrought and incessant. But like all good allegories, there’s a moral to the story. “After all, we never needed Sal or any devil to come from underground...”, Fielding realises, when true evil resides in the heart of all of us. LS
Scribe, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 13, 2016 as "Tiffany McDaniel, The Summer That Melted Everything". Subscribe here.