Scot and his boyfriend Jeremy are on the run, each from their own demons, each seeking … something. A brighter future, a better life, the freedom to be who they truly are. Running from a small town filled with small minded people who had no room in their hearts for two young men who embraced their differences, and each other.
Driving through an endless Nevada desert, Scot and his Jeremy find themselves running out of choices as their jeep begins to give up the ghost. Fortunately, there’s light in the darkness up ahead and a promise of refuge from the heat. Scot and Jeremy find themselves at Maxwell’s, a hotel whose staff are all to eager to please. And please, and please and please.
The hotel staff includes the bright eyed Oliver, who has the face of an angel and a body made for sin, and Vincent, whose dark good looks — among other attributes — seem to draw Jeremy to him like a moth to a flame. But when the mysterious master of Maxwell’s makes it known that he desires nothing more than Scot’s very soul, the two young men are soon well and truly lost.
Sweet Summer Sweat reads like a classic, gothic ghost story. Filled with lush, decadent imagery and subtle, skillful writing, London gives us a motel caught somewhere between the Overlook and Hotel California. The building itself isn’t described in overwhelming detail, leaving the reader free to furnish the small rooms with the decor of their choice.
As with many ghost stories, the setting isn’t so much the bare bones of furniture and wallpaper, but the mood the author evokes, the hints and whispers of mystery and magic that lurk behind the curtains, or just around the corner. Pools that are both cracked and empty with disuse and yet … if you catch them just right with the corner of your eye, filled with clear, cool water.
The story’s pace is languid, giving us ample time to get to know Scot and Jeremy as the flawed, young men that they are. Jeremy, while a selfish lover and a selfish young man with his own ghosts, is not a villain. He’s simply a person, his own person. Scot is no saint, either, as willfully blind and self-centered as any twenty-something. Their relationship is a complex one, and London takes the time to show us the love and affection between them before she begins to slowly tear it apart.
The staff of Maxwell’s, Oliver and Vincent, hint at the mysteries that lurk within the walls as they cast flirtatious, sidelong glances and add innuendo-laden comments to every conversation. Of the two, Oliver is by far my favorite. He wears his wounds like badges of pride, allowing no one to make him feel shame for who or what he is or the life he’s lead. He’s a lesson both Scot and Jeremy sorely need, coming from a town that kept them firmly in the closet. Vincent takes a different path, turning his back on his past and fully embracing the future Maxwell’s has given him. Each man offers a different glimpse at the sorts of lives Jeremy and Scot can choose, and the different offers Maxwell can make to each of its guests.
And then there’s Connor, the mysterious master of Maxwell’s. Or maybe he’s just another prisoner locked into the endless halls and rooms of the dusty desert motel. Connor is another man wounded by his past who, unlike Vincent, has allowed it to master him rather than overcoming it himself. Nor has he been able to fully accept himself the way Oliver has; Connor simply chooses to make no choices rather than make one that might hurt him.
For Jeremy, the motel is an escape. So much of his back story is hinted at in just a few subtle scenes between he and Vincent. His reactions and his final grateful acceptance of what Vincent offers are eloquent in their simplicity. Scot, on the other hand, struggles with the life the motel so desperately wants to give him.
Scot is one of my favorite parts of the story. He isn’t a weak character, for all that he’s young. He’s not afraid to accept himself for who he is, and has no shame in embracing his sexuality in all its parts. He knows his relationship with Jeremy is the product of it being a first love, and the only love available to him in his home town. When Scot and Jeremy begin to drift apart, there’s no pain, no anger, no dramatic fight. It’s an acceptance of the fact that they’re both different people with different needs and different wants. What Scot wants is Connor. But no matter how much he wants Connor, no matter how much it hurts when the time comes to leave Maxwell’s, Scot isn’t willing to give up his own life for another person. He’s strong enough to know that what’s best for Scot isn’t necessarily what’s best for Connor.
The problem with writing ghost stories or gothic novels is the need for a compelling … ghost. Maxwell’s starts as a perfect haunted hotel, but then settles into nothingness. It’s mysteries become mundane and common-place with every strange occurance tossed aside with a shrug of acceptance. Vincent, Jeremy, and Oliver, who is my favorite character in this book, are somewhat paper-thin, with simple motivations and little depth. That’s fine for secondary characters, but for Connor, the ghost in the ghost story, it’s a problem.
Connor is an empty shell, somewhat by design, but his hollowness makes the relationship with Scot feel one-sided. It’s as if Connor is only following a script rather than acting on his own desires. His one-note want is sex, not love or even affection, even though he says he loves Scot there’s no proof of it in his actions. While there is a token explanation behind this emptiness, it didn’t work for me.
The rest of the story, though, did. I would very much like to see a sequel, perhaps one dealing with Oliver, Jeremy, and Vincent. Or just Oliver. (Have I mentioned I liked Oliver?) So, if you’re driving through the Nevada desert one evening and happen to see a motel off in the distance, it wouldn’t hurt to take a look. After all, Maxwell’s aims to please.