**Named One of Book Riot’s BEST QUEER BOOKS OF 2017**
“Packed with story and drama … If Tennessee Williams’s ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ could be transposed to the 21st-century South, where queer liberation co-exists alongside the stubborn remains of fire and brimstone, it might read something like this juicy, moving hot mess of a novel.” –Tim Murphy, The Washington Post
A searing debut novel centering around a gay-to-straight conversion camp in Mississippi and a man's reckoning with the trauma he faced there as a teen.
Camp Levi, nestled in the Mississippi countryside, is designed to “cure” young teenage boys of their budding homosexuality. Will Dillard, a midwestern graduate student, spent a summer at the camp as a teenager, and has since tried to erase the experience from his mind. But when a fellow student alerts him that a slasher movie based on the camp is being released, he is forced to confront his troubled history and possible culpability in the death of a fellow camper.
As past and present are woven together, Will recounts his “rehabilitation,” eventually returning to the abandoned campgrounds to solve the mysteries of that pivotal summer, and to reclaim his story from those who have stolen it. With a masterful confluence of sensibility and place, How to Survive a Summer is a searing, unforgettable novel that introduces an exciting new literary voice.
“Clear and moving, revealing White’s talent in evoking the complexities of the rural South.”
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Nick White is an Assistant Professor of English at Ohio State University. A native of Mississippi, he earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His short stories have been published in a variety of places, including The Kenyon Review, Guernica, Indiana Review, Day One, The Hopkins Review, and elsewhere.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
O N E
B A S E D O N A T R U E S T O R Y
Saturday afternoon in late May, Bobby came into our office talking about a movie. I had never heard of it before now. Later, when I finally tell others about this moment, they simply cannot believe that that movie could have snuck up on me the way it did. At the time, however, it was not so unusual: I was a graduate student in film studies, yes, but my interest was in postwar melodramas of the 1950s. Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession. New releases rarely caught my attention. From what I gathered by the way Bobby carried on, this one was a scary movie, a real doozy— well outside the bounds of my expertise. “Creepy stuff,” he was saying to Cheryl, another officemate of mine.
The three of us shared a windowless space on the third floor of the English Department at a Midwestern university—one I’ll refrain from naming because it hardly matters for my story. The office was barely big enough for our three desks. Each one was shoved against a different wall, mine beside the community filing cabinet. Normally, the office cleared out for the weekends. So this morning I had been surprised—and mildly annoyed—to find Cheryl at her desk, that carrot‑colored hair of hers all bunched up behind her head in a scrunchie. She quietly paged through several books, making notes, never once turning around to bother me. Then Bobby showed up and ruined it.
Together they made a genuine commotion. Bobby wanted to pull up the movie trailer on YouTube to show her what he was talking about, his beefy fingers clicking along her laptop’s keyboard. I fumed. I was going to ask them to use headphones to watch the trailer, but Bobby pressed play before I could speak, and a voice from across the room—not mention from across space and time and even death—rang out from the laptop’s speakers. Acoustic, bare: “Beulah Land,” the voice sang. “I’m longing for you.”
My skin prickled at the sound of her voice, with the memory of old sores long since healed. On the wall above my desk, several post‑ cards were thumbtacked to a cork board by a grad student before my time. Brazil, Laos, Amsterdam. A god’s‑eye view of the cities: their winding roads and closely packed buildings, each snapshot taunting me with elsewhere. The song continued on, infecting the air. Her voice, Mother Maude’s, like a slap. The office, the camp— they collapsed into one. The stink of Lake John. The other boys shouting, louder than hell. Lord, they cried, burn me a new!
In the summer of 1999, when I was fifteen years old, I spent almost four weeks at a camp that was supposed to cure me of my homosexuality. Though I changed in many ways at Camp Levi, my desires—to the grief of everyone involved—did not. The campgrounds were located in central Mississippi on a rural spit of hinterland called the Neck, two and half hours south of the Delta, where I grew up. Camp Levi wasn’t affiliated with any particular Christian denomination. The founders, Mother Maude and Father Drake, had ties to churches of all kinds, each of them instrumental in helping raise the money to pilot the program, including the church where my father was once the pastor. Before she started the camp, Mother Maude enjoyed a short‑lived career as a gospel singer that ran out of steam sometime before her twin brother (and former manager) contracted AIDS. After his death, she vowed to save other boys from a similar fate, and so the idea for the camp was born.
Her cover of “Beulah Land,” popular on Christian radio in the mid‑1980s, accompanied the movie trailer playing on Cheryl’s lap‑ top. There was no voice‑over. Only clips from the movie, which I couldn’t stomach looking at, and Mother Maude’s weepy voice, which I couldn’t escape. Before the song finished, I slid under my desk. I was small enough to fold my body into the leg space down there and still have enough room left over to pull my rolling chair up to my chest and rest my face, cheek down, on the warm cushioned seat. Bobby and Cheryl never even noticed. After the trailer ended, they were silent. Their bodies leaned into each other, the way lovers do, forming a kind of triangle. Their affair was a secret. I’d discovered it, without even trying, months ago simply by reading this kind of body language. I always forgot the reason it was such a scandal for them to be sleeping together. One or the other was married, but I couldn’t remember who. Cheryl was the first to speak: “Wow,” she said. “That was—just wow.” Bobby followed by condemning the South: “It’s fucked up, all of it. Those people.” His pronouncement was enough to settle the matter between them. They changed the subject, and he asked if she was hungry. “Always,” Cheryl told him, her voice low and vaguely suggestive, while on the other side of the room, hiding under my desk, I was biting my lip to keep from screaming. They debated possible restaurants, agreeing on Mexican. “Is this the one with the good fried ice cream?” Bobby asked, as they passed my desk. They killed the lights, locking the door be‑ hind them.
When I returned home from the camp, I had trouble with the details of what had happened to me. They were slippery things, made of water. Even when I testified at the trial, I struggled to answer definitively the lawyers’ questions. “I can’t recall,” I’d say, until the judge interrupted me, and said, not unkindly, “Son, can’t or won’t?” Only later did particulars resurface. The first time was when I was moving from Vanderbilt to where I live now. I had driven for most of the day and stopped off at a Comfort Inn. I lay in bed, the AC unit turned up as high as it would go, the curtains closed. As I drifted, I heard the chant we boys used to holler before jumping into the lake: “Lord, rend my flesh! Lord, burn me anew!” I sprang up from the mattress. I checked the closet, looked outside my window and down the hallway. Nothing. And that was the terrible part: the silence that followed. The silence that proved you were crazy all along. Some‑ times there were only voices. I’d be reading, making dinner, bathing, and snippets of conversation from that summer would float by as if coming from a television set that was left on in another room. But sometimes it was worse. The voices grew into memory, and the mem‑ ory gathered itself into muscle and bone. Into Father Drake’s hands clasped around my neck, pushing me against the Sweat Shack. Into Mother Maude’s terrible embrace, holding me until the others found me. I’d get the shakes then and break into a cold sweat. One time, in a graduate class, a professor saw me in the thrall of one of these spells and, thinking I was a diabetic, sent another classmate off to the vending machine to fetch me a pack of Skittles.
As I sat under my desk, I considered Mother Maude’s song in this new and strange context. Her music never brought her any wide acclaim outside of the Bible Belt. The notion that her song would be part of the soundtrack for a movie was ridiculous—unless, that is, the movie had something to do with the camp. I gripped the chair and pressed my face harder into the seat cushion. In my front pocket, my cell vibrated with an incoming call. I turned it off. I breathed, clearing my brain of distractions. My breath became deeper, more precise. I don’t know how long it was—thirty minutes? an hour?— before there came a knock. I reared back, slamming my head against the top of the desk. The doorknob jiggled. Someone was frantic, calling out my name, “Will? Will?” It was my friend Bevy, who had planned on meeting me at the library this very afternoon. I had for‑ gotten about it until right this second.
“You just missed him,” I called out. “Come back tomorrow.”
She hit the door with what sounded like her fist. “I’m not playing,” she said.
A graduate of law school and a tireless advocate for social justice, Bevy had what people called “direction.” A thing my dissertation (and possibly my life) sorely lacked. My future in academia was in question, and she had agreed to help me sort out a plan for how to finish writing my dissertation. She excelled at strategy: locating the problem and determining the best solution for solving it. My dissertation was a queer analysis of Douglas Sirk films, but after finishing the first chapter on Dorothy Malone’s campy performance in Writ- ten on the Wind, I lacked the intellectual stamina required to complete it. At twenty‑six, I had been in school for most of my life; I was tired. I wanted to turn my brain off from thinking about ideas that were specific and erudite and try something else. Something that tested the body and let the mind alone.
When I opened the office door, Bevy was awash in fluorescent light. Her voice was deep and unforgiving: “What are you doing?” She said she’d tried calling. “I mean, what the fuck, dude?” I pre‑ tended to yawn, and my mouth, liking the suggestion, stretched into a real one. “So imagine,” I lied, “I fell asleep in my office.” I stepped back, my eyes adjusting to the bright hallway. Bevy was in her lawyering outfit. Her black hair parted down the middle. Foundation blended into her moon‑pale skin. Her suit tailored to the square angles of her body, slightly wrinkled from a full day at the firm where she worked. Just the sight of her, adorned in all this evidence of her full and busy life, racked me with guilt.
“Oh, Bevy,” I said.
Her face relaxed, and she sighed. She wouldn’t press me any further. I imagined she would treat her clients like this: hone in on the lies worth pursuing and wave away the ones that weren’t. Our friendship was built on her mastery of this skill. We had met at a crowded gay bar downtown a few years before. Bevy was going from table to table handing out fliers encouraging queers to vote in the upcoming state elections, and I was waiting for a date, someone I had met online. She slapped a neon‑green handbill on my table. “So what’s your story?” she said, and I said, “Do what?” She laughed. “Do what? Did I stutter?” she asked, mocking my drawl. I had my canned answers. The vagaries I told boyfriends and fellow grad students and professors when they asked me to account for myself. But with Bevy and her straightforwardness, I froze. She must have recognized the bewildered expression on my face. A look that told her my story could not be summed up in a few words. So she changed tactics. She laughed again, more gently this time, and gave my arm a squeeze. She whispered, “No worries, hon,” and moved along. Later in the night, after it was clear my date wasn’t coming, she circled back and ordered us drinks— Long Island iced teas. We kept the conversation light, discussing our hatred of the second Bush, an easy point of reference back then.
From that night on, a friendship developed. Anytime she needed a plus one and her girlfriend—a doctor in residency—was too busy, I was called. I joined her for protests, too, outside the offices of public officials who had attracted her ire. If she believed in a cause, she supported it tirelessly. (I flattered myself in believing I was one of them.) She did most the talking when we were together. Which I didn’t mind, even encouraged. She told me about her hometown in Iowa; about her parents, both high school teachers and semi supportive of her interest in girls; about her goals—after practicing law for five years, she planned to go into public service and run for local office. The only hiccup was her inability to pass the bar. “Like most standardized tests,” she told me, “the bar is racist and sexist.” She was currently studying for her third try. I asked her once how a test like that could be prejudiced, and her eyes squinted, and she said, “Isn’t it obvious?” and I said, “Oh, right,” like I had remembered the answer even though I had no clue. About me, she knew very little. She knew I was from the South but thought Tennessee since I had attended Vanderbilt. I didn’t see any reason to correct her. She never asked about my parents. Perhaps she sensed a tender subject in how little I mentioned them.
She’d never seen me just after one of my spells, either. If she noticed anything peculiar about my behavior today, she had the grace to keep it to herself. She leaned against the puke‑colored wall as I packed up, thumbing through e‑mails on her smartphone. The picture of professionalism. I had no delusions: Bevy was more import‑ ant than I was. Her time too valuable to be squandered. I told her so as I shoved my laptop and papers into my satchel, trying to be quick. When I was ready, she looked up from her phone and nodded for me to follow her out, not a trace of resentment in her face. She looped her arm through mine as we walked downstairs. A kindness like hers could break over you like a strong wave, nearly bringing you to your knees. As with other people in my life, a gulf of the unsaid lay between us. She was different, however, because she’d not let that stop her from cobbling together a relationship with me. I couldn’t understand it any more than she could probably understand my own strange ways. We didn’t question it. Wasn’t our style. Outside, she guided me through the empty campus, down a sidewalk edged with sprays of periwinkles, to the concrete parking garage near the library. There was no need for her to tell me she was taking me home. On this, at least, we understood each other perfectly.
Excerpted from "How to Survive a Summer"
Copyright © 2017 Nick White.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoyed this for the most part. It mainly deals with Will's traumatic memories of his time at a gay conversion camp which was heartbreaking to read about. Again, in the beginning I found it hard to get into. There's the initial hook in the first chapter but then the proceeding 5-6 chapters were just really hard to get through for me. The book also deals in past and present (the story is being told in the present and Will remembers things from his past relating to that summer) and I loved the switches back and forth. It was very easy to follow and it was a good choice of the author's to have the past directly told rather than the reader just getting it second hand as a memory. As for the characters themselves, I loved how White didn't portray the people of the camp as these faceless, evil, religious people. They had a past (which was included) and that made it clear that everyone has a past and has reasons for what they do, even if it seems evil to others. I also had the opportunity to hear Nick White speak (he went to graduate school with my professor) which was a great experience. The Final Verdict: Make it through the beginning exposition: the ending is completely worth it. The characters are very well fleshed out and the structure is put together nicely. 4 stars