The Summer Son
By Craig Lancaster
AmazonEncore, 304 pages, $13.95
Craig Lancaster never met a troubled family he didn’t like—or at least felt he couldn’t mend through dialogue and cathartic scenes of pop psychology in his novels. Conflict between father and son was at the core of his debut, the award-winning 600 Hours of Edward and it’s front and center in his sophomore novel.
In The Summer Son, Lancaster has sliced open another vein of domestic pain for a more ambitious book. If he’s not quite as successful here as he was with 600 Hours of Edward—a tightly-wound novel with an unforgettable narrator (the titular Edward who has Asperger’s)—then it’s not for lack of trying. The Summer Son is looser and baggier by comparison, but it also feels more intimate. The Billings author has put his heart into telling the story of an embittered relationship between narrator Mitch Quillen and his 71-year-old father, going deep into territory that feels both singularly personal for Lancaster and universally accessible for readers who will identify with what’s at stake here.
The Summer Son begins in 2007 when Mitch pays a visit to his father after getting a series of cryptic phone calls from the old man. The trip back to his boyhood home in Billings sets in motion a series of flashbacks, which appear with increasing frequency and intensity as the novel progresses. What was once a chummy father-son relationship turned sour at some point in 1979 and Lancaster spends the course of the book peeling away the layers of scabs which have built up on both men in the ensuing twenty-eight years.
Mitch’s parents divorced when he was three years old. He went to live with his mother in Washington state and spent every other summer with his father, alternating years with his older brother Jerry. In 1979, the boys join Jim Quillen as he moves between jobs exploring for oil in the West. In these scenes set at the end of the Me Decade, there’s plenty of drinking, casual sex, and rabble-rousing in the sagebrush—all of which Lancaster captures in finely-crafted detail.
The weather in 1979 is not all golden sunlight, however, and it’s bitter memories that come flooding back to the characters in the present day. There’s conflict from Page 1 as Mitch takes a phone call, hears his dad’s voice, and immediately puts up an emotional wall: “I felt my guts coil.” The tension only winches tighter as the pages turn and Lancaster shifts between the past and the present where long-stuffed feelings of resentment are about to become unavoidable for Mitch.
There are equal amounts of feel good and feel bad in Lancaster’s novels. He puts his characters through some pretty tough wringers—fathers neglecting young sons, adult sons later lashing out at those same fathers, and wives and daughters caught somewhere in the middle ground of not knowing whose side to take.
In The Summer Son, the knotty tangle of discord between the two grown men in the 2007 sections lurks in the background on nearly every page, as in this instance when the two take a trip back to Split Rail, the ranch where the family once lived:
I clutched the steering wheel hard, relenting only after the pain hit my shoulders, and Dad sat indignant in the passenger seat of my rented Ford. We rode in silence those final few miles after the turn toward Split Rail. The well-worn state highway dropped behind us, and we climbed a sandstone butte, stacked layer upon layer like a wafer cookie. The deeper we pushed into the country, the angrier the road to Split Rail became.
Lancaster takes the anger all the way to the finish line later on that same trip as the father and son erupt into a knock-down-drag-out fistfight which calls to mind the epic battle between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River. In that memorable movie scene, Wayne’s character growls at his son, “You’re soft! Won’t anything make a man out of you?” Then he lays a hard back-hand across Clift’s matinee-idol face.
In The Summer Son, Jim Quillen despises the weak, jelly-core of his son in much the same way. The West is a man’s world; no room for namby-pamby. It’s also a place where “what’s done is done.” No sniveling allowed.
The elderly Jim is a firm believer in the School of Sleeping Dogs and tells Mitch: “Things work out the way they work out….There isn’t anything that fixing the past can do for you now.” Mitch, on the other hand, has come of age in the New Age when men were encouraged to confront raw emotion, to have, as he puts it, “a let’s-lay-our-cards-on-the-table, free-flowing exchange of invective.” For him, the trip to see his father and to revisit their past is one of catharsis: “nearly everything that was screwed up about my family—the one I was born into and the one I was raising—traced back to secrets. Some things needed to be dragged into the light.”
If this is starting to sound like an episode of The Dr. Phil Show, it’s because Lancaster does sometimes swerve toward talk-show psychology, putting all the standard therapy-couch words in his characters’ mouths. Dialogue suffers in those moments, but just when it threatens to turn the book soggy, along comes a scene as hard as a fist that snaps us back to the hard-to-watch abrasion between Mitch and his father.
Like the proverbial car crash we rubberneck in passing, it’s hard to turn our eyes away from the human wreckage in The Summer Son. We do so with a shudder and a twinge of remorse because Lancaster has not only gone deep into his characters but he’s reached inside his readers as well—all the way to that secret place where we all avoid the unavoidable. The Summer Son assures us it’s okay to drag those hard feelings into the light.
David Abrams’ short stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Missouri Review, and The North Dakota Review, among other publications. He is currently working on a novel loosely based on his experiences during the Iraq War, and his blog is The Quivering Pen. He and his wife live in Butte, Montana.