WHAT DIES IN SUMMER
This debut novel from American Tom Wright sits somewhere between coming-of-age story and crime fiction, rather as if the world of The Member of the Wedding has collided with Law & Order: SVU. Even if this is a question of marketability more than anything else, it still shows what hold the imagination of disaster, the ferocious and the sinister has on contemporary culture.
The scene is Texas, in a moment of the recent past when people still listen to records and mobile phones and computers aren't in evidence.
LA, or Lee Ann, turns up on the doorstep of her cousin James' house. She's had enough of her hard-drinking parents; she is tougher and more worldly than James, and more able to take command. He is naive and knowing by turns, and Wright can make it hard to work out how old he is. Some of this ambiguity is caused by Wright having his narrator say things that sound like a writer's thoughts, not those of a teenager in a small Texan town.
James and LA are being looked out for by their grandmother, whose notion of goodness, James notices, is applicable not just at church.
She is the moral centre and bright light in a world otherwise infected by wrongdoing just about everywhere. It's a world of predatory, dissolute men: James' stepfather punches him so hard, he ends up in jail; the leader of the church choir is known to offer money to girls to be allowed to spank them; James and LA play basketball with a strange man who asks them back to his apartment to help him make a movie.
Then there are the murders. James and LA find a dead girl behind a freeway underpass, and it turns out she is not the only one. The latter part of the novel has us wondering which of the creeps and paedos Wright has introduced us to is responsible for the deaths. James has something approaching second sight and has visions of the victims and how they met their end.
Adolescent vulnerability under threat is the subject, but Wright piles it on thick: a character commits suicide by stabbing himself in the chest with a sword, and a woman dying of cancer asks James - not very plausibly, considering what we know of her - to help her euthanase herself.
If a question mark is added to the title of this book, the answer is: quite a bit. After a while, each chapter seems to promise some new darkness and this draws the enterprise towards a black, David Lynchian camp, which isn't what Wright seems to be after. The elaborate sadism of the murders and Wright's insistence on making James witness to them - towards the end, he's in a police station and the crime-scene photos are on the desk - doesn't avoid seeming exploitative.
Overemphasis can be the result of underconfidence and first-time novelists sometimes throw everything they have into the ring. If you look past the clutter and formulaic horrors, Wright has a lot going for him. Some of his throwaway lines hit the mark, such as when James describes how he likes the "royal feeling" of a church. And when the melodrama isn't being cranked up too high, his sense of scene and dialogue is strong.