Rating: 4.5 stars
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For nearly a decade, Andrew Blur and Eddie Fulton were inseparable. Described by others as friends, brothers, and roommates, the pair shared a life of “Eddie keeping [Andrew] leashed but cared for at the same time” and Andrew content to follow wherever Eddie led. Bonded by love, death, and blood, they became each other’s home—a home crowded with hungry silence, barbed solace, and raging yearning; coalescing into a miasmic, borderline-obsessive devotion that seeped out as feverish aggression and adrenaline-soaked recklessness. It was the only acceptably masculine language in which they could express their feelings. They shared a major, a tattoo, even a girl, so it made sense to apply to the same graduate program in American Studies at Vanderbilt University. What didn’t make sense was Eddie’s surprise early admission to the program, his move to Nashville without Andrew, and their subsequent semester separation that Eddie extended incrementally from 5 months to 8. When Andrew finally got permission from Eddie to join him, their reunion comes in the form of a funeral a few days later.
With Eddie gone, so is Andrew’s home.
Every moment of his life that followed would take him further from Eddie, no matter his efforts to scrounge for the remains, but what else was there for him to do except draw what was left as close as possible?
The only path forward Andrew can see is the last one Eddie chose for them. Accepting this path means accepting the inheritances Eddie left him, including a house and ready-made friends in the form of a roommate named Riley Sowell and Riley’s mechanic/drug dealing cousin, Sam Halse—none of which Andrew wants. Andrew’s sole reason for being in Nashville, living with a stranger, and remaining enrolled in a graduate program he cares nothing about is to find out “what or who had taken Eddie from him.” His cripplingly repressive nature sees him ricocheting between wanting to rip the answers from the flesh of the strangers who hadn’t “kept Eddie well” and to mindlessly running away when offered answers or potential friendship or anything else that calls to his grief and vulnerability. The only offers Andrew freely accepts are his chosen methods of escape—drugs and street racing.
Andrew’s scattershot attempts at investigating Eddie’s death see him “acting on one impulse after another, hoping he’d find the right direction while dodging the shit he’d rather ignore,” like the real reason Eddie was drawn back to their birthplace, that one discordant note in the song of them—their connection to the dead. While Eddie remained silently fascinated, Andrew chose to forget…until Eddie forces his hand. Surrounded by the haunts of their past and wantonly drowning in his fears and unwillingness to see beyond Eddie, Andrew will finally have to make his own choice for life, death…or something in between.
As a Tennessee girl myself, I can’t help but be drawn towards the Southern Gothic horror subgenre, since various cultivars of deep, DEEP denial/repression (sweetened by generously given smiles and sugary politeness, of course) are still the regions’ most prolific crop, and I was curious to see which ones Summer Sons curated and how far down the roots grew. Lee Mandelo’s debut novel explores deeply-entrenched repression, masculinity, grief, systems of oppression, and the roots of their power wrapped up in angry emo angst, homoerotic posturing, and lovingly, viscerally described revenants that “[appreciate] the vital spice of terror when leeched from the living.”
As Summer Sons takes a deep dive into repression born of masculine gender norms and the various areas of inhibition this creates, the book is a very slow burn. Andrew spends the first half full of frothing desperation; all the things he and Eddie didn’t talk about leaking through his cracks, spilling from the box he’s kept them in for half his life and unable to pack them away again—open, vulnerable, and resolutely resistant to being that way. For Andrew, there is only Eddie, but for all their mutual dedication, much of their connection is an illusion. Because their friendship has been limited to the cage of appropriate heteronormativity (enforced vigorously by Eddie), Andrew has accepted that they can’t be “that way” and emotionally, mentally, and physically bolts at any whiff of queerness. His denial is so deep, he can’t even be honest with himself in the face of Eddie’s newfound acceptance and openness in their time apart; and being unable to be honest keeps Andrew from truly grieving and gives life to his haunts—Eddie’s self-centered/destructive nature; Andrew’s blind obedience; their skewed, co-dependent relationship; their queerness. Andrew can’t let go and heal because he’s clinging to this rot.
The reality of Eddie’s death, of being surrounded by Riley and Sam—the people Eddie had spent the final months of life with, the people comfortable in the house Andrew now owns but feels displaced in, the strangers Eddie had shared their secrets with—and Andrew’s inability unwillingness to process his emotional agitation as anything other than gender-appropriate raised hackles and prickly combativeness or the dissociative translucency of drugs keeps him “hamstrung by his own destruction.” Andrew would literally rather by embraced by the cold, invasive remnants of Eddie than accept the support being offered to him.
And while I was sometimes frustrated when Andrew remained stubbornly still, Mandelo’s simple but evocative prose kept unexpectedly hitting home with a deft word choice here or unique turn of phrase there, helping me stay present and invested in Andrew’s journey until he begins to move forward. Andrews first bit of breakthrough is a culmination of Riley’s steadfast understanding and Sam’s brash forcefulness. In Halse, Andrew recognizes the same burning intensity and intangible want that burned in Eddie and himself beneath Halse’s brash, good-ole-boy charisma; recognizes that seductive threat of something Halse wields to entice and dominate his pack of “boys with fast cars and bad habits” as well as unerringly provoke the roiling emotions inside Andrew only to soothe them back down to a thrum with his vitalizing night races.
All the major secondary characters are a bit fuzzy around the edges, indistinct in the way of early adulthood—remaking themselves from moment to moment and as they pass from group to group. They wear the messiness of human complexity closer to the surface, proclaiming to be “not great people” while offering up seemingly limitless friendship because they want to honor someone’s memory. Andrew’s coming of age is done in a drastic way (basically so subservient to Eddie’s personality, neither Andrew nor the reader know much about who he is by the end), but it works within the motifs of the book. Also because Mandelo does such a good job conveying Eddie’s personality and energy, the similarities between him and Sam almost make Halse an Eddie clone. Andrew draws the parallels between the two early on, and it takes a while after Andrew’s breakthrough and his growing closeness with the cousins to get to the important differences between them. So while not quite a clone, Sam feels like Eddie v2.0—fixing self-centeredness and privileged rich boy bugs.
For me, the most interesting and well-rounded character is Riley, with Eddie/Andrew’s friend Delia in second place. As the most harshly used character (especially given her lack of page time and early exodus), Delia gets the most complete emotional arc—from constantly shut out and at-odds friend to finally looking out for her own mental well-being. Although, I have to wonder if she received the closure/”better off without them” treatment to completely remove her from Andrew’s life in the most palatable way possible. Riley, as well as being Eddie/Andrew’s roommate, is also in the same graduate program and shares the same “wrong side of the tracks” background, recreational activities, and pragmatism as his cousin. Not only is Riley emotionally and mentally intelligent, he’s sensitive to haunts in a complementary way to Eddie/Andrew and does the heavy lifting when it comes to working around Andrew’s prickly, emotional boundaries, erratic behavior, and hair-trigger temper. Frankly, I felt like he is a healthier, more well-suited match for Andrew, but between Riley already having a girlfriend and a boyfriend and Andrew simply not being stable or confident enough in his own skin yet, Riley doesn’t deserve the headache.
While the incorporation/symbolism of the haunts and Andrew’s journey are fully fleshed out and interwoven almost seamlessly, for me other elements of repression Mandelo tries to incorporate, such as systemic racism/classism and the bloody history at their foundations, don’t fit in quite as well. The academic setting and the simmering, fraught tensions of privilege, entitlement, and the gray spaces of fairness in regards to intersectionality are used more as plot devices for the story-length investigation into Eddie’s death; they’re alluded to or mentioned in passing and at most possibly used to exemplify (justify?) some of the characters’ hubris, terrible reasoning, and dangerously faulty logic. While not as cohesive as the rest of the genre elements, I still appreciated the acknowledgement of these deeply entrenched issues.
Despite a few pacing hiccups and thin mystery, Summer Sons mines the alienation, isolation, and visceral fear and repression found in Gothic horror to tell an achingly familiar coming of age story that not only conveys the painful, overwhelming, and frightening experience of discovery and growth, but also the resiliency and hope that can be found in supportive, caring bonds.