Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on How to Survive a Summer.
An English tutor at a Memphis University, Will Dillard is well aware of the frequent contradictions between appearances and reality,
of playing by the rules rather than following them to the letter, and of embracing self-preservation as a means of survival. These qualities are also a part of his personal life.
In the summer of 1999, Will's Baptist preacher father marched Will off to Camp Levi, where he spent almost four weeks trying to be cured of his homosexuality. Located in Mississippi on a rural spit of hinterland called
The Neck, the camp’s founders--Will’s aunt ("Mother" Maude) and her husband, Father Drake--initially set
the camp up in reaction to Maude’s twin brother, John, who contracted AIDS. After John’s death, Maude vowed to stop other boys from a similar fate.
Will has reached a crossroads
in his life. The memories of Camp Levi remain a ghost that terrorizes his
psyche. This acknowledgement of the past proves to be far more meaningful when
Will begins to fall for Zeus, a transgendered man he meets through his best
friend, Bevy. Will’s courtship also coincides with a violent slasher film inspired by his time in Camp Levi. The movie, about a group of pretty straight people terrorized by a damaged gay dude hiding in the woods, is based on a memoir published three years ago. Although the film is popular, Bevy is outraged at the film’s portrayal of gays. She tells Will that gays
"have gotten too complacent in this... this... this new acceptance,” and that he must help her protest the new film as a way of connecting with other queer groups across the country who are currently staging demonstrations at theaters.
From his recollections of the Summer I First Believed, to Bevy’s enthusiastic Queer Live meeting, to Will’s old friends Rick and Larry, who originally wrote the controversial memoir, Will struggles to accept himself as a gay man.
He ponders a secret rendezvous, increasingly attracted to Zeus with his dingy work boots and his unkempt
eyebrows that seem to fan out across his face. In order to fully connect with
Zeus, Will knows that he must jettison his ghosts. After Bevy tells him that “we
can’t help loving the places we came from no matter how broken or terrible they were,” Will decides to drive headlong into his past, travelling back to Mississippi, to Camp Levi, and back into the orbit of his estranged father.
Will rediscovers the colorful lore of The Neck, his mother's stories of moonshiners and of John, considered to be “different,” a delicate child who no one quite
knew what to do with. We see Will start to make peace with his father and his resolution over the terrible tragedy that culminated in the dissolution of Camp Levi, which in turn lead to Father Drake’s incarceration. The tie of lifelong friendships come full circle when Will visits his old friends: Rumil, an entrepreneur of hooch-drenched snow cones, and Christopher, an accomplished quicksilver artist.
Academia has provided Will with a hole to hide in, a way to burrow away and hibernate while everyone else--including Rumi, Christopher, and even his father--has moved on.
White’s characters are big and bold, Will’s widowed father ousted from his beloved church and estranged from his queer son. In the course of his journey, Will discovers that his father fashioned a whole new life for himself. He was a liberal thinker, but he firmly believed that “sodomites” like Will fell short of God’s holy plans for human relationships. Mother Maude enjoyed a short-lived career as a gospel singer until she ran out of steam sometime before she started shouting to her boys: “lord burn me anew!” Father Drake’s bitterness growled behind closed doors, and Dale, the poor boy unlucky enough to get caught in Maude’s crossfire. They might be full of full of rage, yet White’s characters have so much sparkle that one wonders if the Southerners truly speak a different language and are on a different level from the rest of us.
Skewering the themes of moral ambiguity and sexual identity, White’s novel is a beautifully rendered master class in the art of Southern gothic fiction. The author gorgeously charts Will’s emotional growth, from his present existence as a bookish, lonely scholar to a man finally capable of love.
Will is pushed forward by his group of friends to finally visit Camp Levi. Here, in what is now a dried-up lake bed, Will is at long last able to comprehend the stupidity of being told his love was “filthy and wrong.” Returning to the
camp jumpstarts the memory of how he longed to completely obliterate himself and put something wholesome in its place. Mother Maude and Father Drake’s twisted agenda proves that what was once a simple to cure for some is the death of others: some are merely damaged by life, others are doomed.
How I wished to be a part of Will’s coterie of lifelong friends, each rendered so fully and with such tenderness and truthfulness. Does White’s novel get a bit lost along the way? Occasionally. But like the Southern highways that Will anxiously travels down, “ribbons of asphalt” unfurling before and behind him, the author proves that the past is like a reel of film in your brain, a film that keeps on rolling, spooling, and unspooling regardless of whether or not you are watching.