Thursday, August 11, 2011

Douglas Thayer and the Adolescent Adam: A Review of "Summer Fire"

Douglas Thayer’s fiction clings doggedly to the Mormon boyhood.  His protagonists, usually young men from Provo, exist in a limbo state between innocence and knowledge.  Indeed, like adolescent Adams, they often bite into forbidden fruits—usually violent in nature—and find themselves stranded in lone and dreary worlds.  In this respect, they share blood—in more ways than one—with the protagonists in the fiction of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy, two writers whose works famously explore the ways violence shapes masculinity.  But where the protagonists of Hemingway and McCarthy succumb to the violence of a fallen world, Thayer’s hold on to the possibility of joy and redemption, even when neither possibility is readily discernible. 

This optimism, in some ways, sets Thayer apart from much of contemporary American fiction, which is either overly clever or overly morose in its bleak depiction of modern life.  As a writer, Thayer resists such pessimism without discarding the hard realities of life.  His stories, therefore, are sad and often heartbreaking, but never tragic.  Nor are they about simple dualistic worlds where good and evil are easily distinguishable.  Usually, only a few crucial life decisions separate Thayer’s protagonists from his antagonists.   

As a reader, I’ve encountered Thayer’s fiction in a haphazard way.  His second novel, The Conversion of Jeff Williams (Signature Books, 2003), which I read shortly after its publication, was the first novel I experienced that treated contemporary Mormonism in a realistic way.  Earlier this year, I read (and reviewed) his third and most recent novel, The Tree House (Zarahemla Books, 2009), which is likely his best and most ambitious work.  Between reading these two novels, I also read several of his short stories and his memoir, Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood (Zarahemla Books, 2009).  Finally, this past week, I finished his first novel, Summer Fire (Signature Books, 1983).

Summer Fire is about Owen Williams, a sixteen-year-old Mormon boy who lives with his mother and grandmother, has “always kept the commandments,” and soon expects to be “the only boy in his ward with both his Eagle Scout badge and Duty to God  Award” (5-6).  The novel begins as Owen and his cousin Randy board a bus that takes them to a Nevada hay ranch where they have been hired to work for the summer.  For both Owen and Randy, this is the first time they have been away from their home in Provo for an extended period.  It is Randy’s father’s hope that the summer job “will help make men out of both of them” (2).

Physically, though, Owen has a long way to go.  Thin, with a history of sickness, Owen is a far cry from the cowboy image of masculinity that confronts him on the ranch.  Manual labor does not come naturally to him, and he is more used to playing the piano and reading moralistic literature—Drinking and the Young American, Animals that Love, How the Youth Prepare for Temple Marriage—than clearing irrigation ditches and pitching hay.  Randy, on the other hand, seems more suited for the work and the bunkhouse environment it fosters.  He arrives at the ranch already in cowboy duds, and his literature of choice is back issues of Playboy.

Filling the role of antagonist in Summer Fire is the Staver, the ranch foreman, who carries a thick white scar down the length of his chest from a heart wound he received in the Korean War.  He is, in some ways, the antithesis of Owen: around the ranch he is crude, irreverent, petty, and sometimes brutally violent.  Yet he also possesses certain positive traits that Owen’s own self-righteousness undervalues or overlooks.  With Owen, for example, he is sternly patient whenever the boy makes big mistakes, like overinflating the wheels on his pick-up truck, spilling a can of red paint, or sending the wrong calve to be slaughtered.  Staver is also quick with a compliment whenever he sees a job well done.  As a character, he is a multi-sided die whose behavior is never quite predictable.  Once you begin to like and admire him, he does something to make you despise him.  Then you learn more information about his past, and your view of him again changes entirely.
    
Like Thayer’s other novels, Summer Fire is a Mormon coming-of-age story.  During his time on the ranch, Owen had a series of experiences that help refine his character and smooth the roughest edges of his commitment to personal righteousness. Indeed, throughout the novel, Owen grapples with reconciling the teachings of his beloved seminary teacher, Brother Anderson, with the moral ambiguities of ranch life.  As he does so, he gains terrifying insights into his own potential for good and evil in the world.

Often, Staver is the catalyst for these insights, and Owen frequently loses himself in violent fantasies in which he and Staver switch roles:

I wanted to run and tackle [Staver], knock him down in the mud and manure, get on top of him and push his face down in it and keep doing that until he pleaded with me to stop, and I stood and pulled him up and shoved him against the fence, and then I climbed though the fence and walked away.  I wanted Staver to feel what it was like.  That’s all I wanted, so he wouldn’t do it to other summer hands.  (120)

Such fantasies offer readers another view of Owen that contrasts sharply with the Golden Boy image he tries so hard to convey. Early in the novel, for instance, he is sure that he “couldn’t torture and kill people,” but that certainty erodes as he becomes increasingly more confused about the meaning of personal righteousness, and his ambivalence towards Staver gives way to hate. 

When the day comes that I teach an Introduction to Mormon Literature class to a room full of Latter-day Saints, I’m going to assign Summer Fire.  Not only has Thayer written the novel in an incredibly teachable way—it employs traditional plot structure, a clear theme, and plenty of accessible symbolism—but he has also used it to address many of the basic doctrines (i.e. atonement, eternal progression, etc.) that young Latter-day Saints learn about and discuss in the Seminary program.  What is more, the novel has a kind of ageless quality about it, despite being set sometime in the mid-1960s, possibly due to its remote setting, timeless themes, or even Thayer’s own distinctive, unadorned prose style.  Whatever the case may be, readers are unlikely to be distracted by any details that would betray the fact that it was published nearly thirty years ago.  

Summer Fire, in short, is an excellent novel that deserves recognition as a classic of Mormon fiction.  For readers who are familiar with Thayer and his fiction, this is old news.  In 1985, Eugene England praised Summer Fire for being “the first ‘real’ Mormon novel in nearly thirty years […] to deal seriously with Mormon characters and ideas” (Dialogue 18.4, 197). Since then, dozens of other novels have followed its example, dealing seriously with Mormonism and slowly establishing a canon of texts built largely upon the foundation established by Thayer’s unswerving commitment to telling Mormon stories. While it is not Thayer’s best work—again, that distinction, in my opinion, remains with his masterful The Tree HouseSummer Fire remains a solid stone in that foundation.

Summer Fire is currently out-of-print; however, you can purchase a second-hand copy of it from Amazon.com for as little as $0.43 plus shipping.

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