Fletcher Greel drives a Honda. If not for this detail, and a few others--a conversation about the merits of a Mike Tyson fight, for instance--Suzanne Kingsbury's The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me could take place in any of the past five decades. Set in a fictional Houser Banks, Miss., in the late 1980s, Kingsbury's story exists in a community untouched by strip malls, urban sprawl or the contemporary politics of race relations. A sense of timelessness, in theme and setting, seems to be what Kingsbury is after in her debut novel, a lyrically written coming-of-age story about four teenagers growing up in a rural town resistant to change.
The principals in the story are Haley Ellyson, an obstreperous 16-year-old with a horse-wrangling father and an absent mother, and Fletcher Greel, son of the town judge, 18 years old and home from prep school to wile away the summer before heading to college. The two meet thanks to Fletcher's grade school friend Riley and his girlfriend Crystal, an African-American blues singing teenager from the neighboring town. The foursome soon become inseparable and spend the summer swimming, drinking beer and driving around in Riley's Roadrunner convertible, avoiding most of the townspeople, and falling in love.
Naturally, Haley and Fletcher are from different sides of the tracks. But their socioeconomic status is not the wedge that threatens to drive them apart. Haley has secrets, involving a body buried in the woods and the advances of an older man, Bo Dickens. Dickens killed a man, ostensibly to protect Haley's drunken father, and enlisted Haley to help bury him in the woods behind her home. Alternately frightened and attracted to the secret she holds, late at night she sneaks out to the makeshift grave. "It is the things that happen to you which no one else knows about that make you important in life," Haley says, empowered by the responsibilities, and newfound freedoms, of her late adolescence.
For much of the book, while it seems that Haley's secret might hold, the more pressing concern is the town's rampant racism--hatred so palpable and overt that the late 1980s seems like a very untimely setting. For all intents and purposes, Houser Banks is a segregated town; the neighboring town of East Neigh is home to the area's African-American population. Nevertheless, Crystal travels to Houser Banks to attend high school and endangers herself simply by being seen with Riley.
Kingsbury, a former Fulbright scholar, moved to Oxford, Miss., in 1999 to research and write Fletcher Greel. According to her press materials, she quit her job, broke her lease, and moved from Vermont to work the breakfast shift in a Mississippi diner and spend time smoking cigarettes on Faulkner's grave. Her prose is ornate, and her dialogue rough around the edges, with studied Southern dialect. People don't open a beer in Fletcher Greel, they commence to opening beers. Men use billfolds instead of wallets, the women laugh easy and drive past fences roped in honeysuckle and jasmine. The story takes its time, unfolding slowly like the Southern speech, as if affected by the summer heat.
Indeed, summer is waning by the time tragedy finally unfolds. In the end, and in sharp contrast to Houser Banks, Miss., the group is irrevocably changed. But by their strength and their love for each other they grow to see their relationships--and the summer--for what it has become: the bridge from "a childhood you can't go back to."
Steve Almond's debut collection of short stories, My Life in Heavy Metal, takes a more ironic view of finding--and losing--love, an exercise executed by contemporary characters who have grown up in an age seemingly without innocence. "What we want is the glib aria of disastrous love, which is, finally, the purest expression of self-contempt," remarks a male graduate student, charting his history of failed relationships.
Disastrous love works well as a uniting theme for Almond's 12-story collection, which includes works previously published in Playboy, Missouri Review, and The Denver Quarterly. In the title story, an El Paso newspaper clerk takes a job reviewing heavy metal bands when they play local venues. He learns his own capacity for betrayal when he sabotages his live-in relationship for an affair--with a Mexican-American lifeguard--better suited to the spirit of the music, the "reverberation, the darkness, the forced proximity" of heavy metal. "How to Love a Republican" charts a failed love affair between two aggressively political 20-somethings, set absurdly against the backdrop of the Bush-Gore 2000 election fiasco--an obstacle that their relationship cannot surpass. "Geek Player, Love Slayer" is the neurotic monologue of a 33-year-old writer who harbors a short-lived crush on an obtuse, dimwitted office computer guy, which ends in an embarrassing episode at the office Christmas party. In "The Body in Extremis," a man moves to the big city and engages in a noncommittal sexual relationship with an acquaintance, and is unexpectedly and illogically devastated when it ends.
My Life in Heavy Metal explores the hope and unavoidable heartache of urban romance when--because of betrayal, circumstance or absurdity--the relationship must end. "We carried, along with our clattery Beltway cynicism and our Motorolas, a tremendous vulnerability to hope," declares the young liberal upon falling for an up-and-coming Republican Party representative. The beauty of Almond's stories is that they capture the moments when that hope takes a downturn, and the realization sets in that "there is a point you reach ... when you are just something bad that happened to someone else."