The term “mind-blowing” is overused, a label haphazardly applied to any story with a mildly interesting twist. Over time, it’s become an easy phrase to discount, especially when some “mind-blowing” twists sacrifice sense in favor of surprise.
Richard Cox’s The Boys of Summer earns those words. The mind-blowing aspects of this complex, challenging novel sneak up on you. There’s no sudden left turn, but rather a dawning realization of something greater occurring, just beneath the surface—something you would’ve noticed all along, if you were just paying attention to the right things. Along the way, it captures the same spirit of dreadful nostalgia that made Stranger Things a recent smash hit for Netflix. Indeed, at times it reads like a companion to that series—though the novel is considerably darker.
The Stephen King Shoutouts
Think of this as the best Stephen King novel not by Stephen King (a true compliment). It recasts the basic elements and of classic 1980s King—especially It—and the allusions and homage are so purposeful, several characters makes direct references to that Master of Horror, yet the story never feels like a xeroxed copy.
There is a lot of King here, though: in the small Texas town of Wichita Falls, a group of children survive an (entirely factual) F4 tornado in 1979. The tornado affects them in different ways: families are shattered and recombined, guilt is acquired, and one boy, Todd Willis, enters into a state of catatonic schizophrenia, manifesting as sleepwalking. In fact, Todd sleepwalks for four years. During this time, he experiences a strange dreamlike state, bathed in white light, and accesses experiences that seem very real. Emerging from the coma, he’s far from developmentally stunted—he’s self-assured, experienced, and confident, almost as if he knows the future. He meets other boys whose lives were changed by the tornado and befriends them, forming a club called The Boys of Summer—named so after a Don Henley song Todd plays for them—two years before it was released.
The story flashes back and forth between 1983 and 2008. In the past, Todd goads his friends into increasingly destructive, violent acts, culminating in an act of arson and the disappearance of another boy. In the book’s present, the adult boys (save one) return to Wichita Falls—or never left—gathering for the first time in decades when new fires, accompanied by cryptic emails quoting Don Henley, plague the town. To a great and lesser extents, each of them can feel that something is coming, something strange. Slowly they begin to figure it out—how Todd knew how to play a song that hadn’t been written, why they did the things they did, why they all suppressed the memory of something Todd told them when they played with fire as boys.
The Last Line
You know how some people like to skip to the end of a book and read the last line first? Sometimes that doesn’t seem to spoil a thing, imbued with meaning only once you’ve read the thousands of preceding sentences. The Boys of Summer is like that. You realize alongside the characters why past (and future) evens matter, what they really mean, in the larger context. As an F5 tornado (that didn’t actually happen) bears down on Wichita Falls in 2008 and the adult characters piece together clues from their scattered memories, they begin to catch on to what really happened, and we’re right there with them. And then, without any sudden moves, your mind is blown.
The Sweet Spot
]The 1980s. The spirit of Stephen King. Children caught up in events they can’t understand, events that will play out over the balance of their lives. And it all builds slowly, inexorably, to a climax that involves a storm to end all storms. And it is glorious. If you’re a fan of Stephen King, of Stranger Things, of novels like Boy’s Life or Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Boys of Summer is your jam.
And you’ll never hear that song the same way again.