When Bill Rivers put a copy of his debut novel, Last Summer Boys, in my hand earlier this summer, he didn’t tell me it came with blurbs from former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, for whom he had been a speechwriter, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. We met in order to do something of an interview: I wanted to get to know a young writer who seemed unusually bashful in an era of self-promotion; indeed, Bill was more inclined to hide his résumé than brag. (For example, he neglected to boast that he already has more than 20,000 pleased readers.) I went away from our meeting convinced that his concern with the honor of dutiful service and the need for faith was genuine, so those blurbs are remarkably apposite—honest advertising, of which we have very little.
The novel works its way to these themes. Last Summer Boys starts in a troubled America in the summer of ’68, a country that has lost its civil peace and also its innocence, which is quite a burden to place on a boys adventure tale set in rural Pennsylvania. Further, the four protagonists are all-American and thus woefully unfit to face up to this drama: The Elliott boys are 13-year-old Jack; 16-year-old Will, an admirer of Robert F. Kennedy and Bob Dylan; and Pete, who’s turning 18 on the Fourth of July and is as confident, good-natured, and beautiful as you can imagine. The fourth is their city cousin Frankie, who’s the same age as Jack, the narrator, but smarter and already a writer, no doubt advantages conferred by the city.
The Elliott parents, Gene and Addie, are similarly idealized. There’s a warm but strong and sometimes harsh father, a Korean War veteran and always helpful to his fellow man, and a beautiful, very religious mother, whose no-nonsense way of speaking gives her a handle on her somewhat wild boys. They’re a churchgoing family, but they live away from the town. They’re proud but poor; Gene works as caretaker of the estate of a local, eccentric man of wealth. They are masters of an old house, said to be two centuries old, which would make it pre-Revolutionary, a symbol of the continuity of pioneer life in America, whose virtues they embody. They’re also a military family, with the quiet pride of the honorable and the belief that they must answer the nation’s call.
This should place us at a comfortable distance from the race riots, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, and the Vietnam War protests, but these are the events that decide the nation’s dramatic turns, and the small community, the rural way of life, will not be spared. Somehow they must suffer with the rest of America. The novel follows the adventures of these spirited boys, from the charming to the fearful, as they find employment for their freedom during the summer holiday. They involve themselves in everything from the delights of exploring the wilderness to ghost stories, the quest for a downed plane, and a confrontation with an evil boy in a cave. Throughout, Rivers shows us a natural world of creeks and hills, storms and floods, forests and fires that are unbelievably symbolic of the problem of evil—a vision of the world as a vale of tears, a suffering, even a terror redeemed by faith. Something of that haunting suffering, at a distance from us but inescapable, shows up in the novel’s opening lines:
Cousin Francis said come nighttime he could smell the fires in his city.
Not like the sweet woodsmoke scent me and my brothers love so much, but an awful, eye-watering sting in the air of burning brick and rubber and roofing tar. Wind blew that terrible smell all the way to his bedroom window from the West Lake housing projects where the fires burned and had been burning since sundown the day Reverend King was killed. Seven straight days the riots lasted, and on the morning of the seventh day the soldiers came, came and stayed. It went on like that for weeks, until the day Francis’s father came up to his room to tell him he’d be coming to stay with us for that summer of 1968.
As I said, the novel is narrated, in an unspecified situation we can only surmise is our current time of troubles, by youngest Jack, after he is all grown up. His story, as he tells it, shows him caught between the ordinary life of the small town he loves and the kinds of events that bring the Cold War to their home—he’s afraid his eldest brother Pete’s about to get drafted, because he’s turning 18 and there’s no chance of his going to college. So Jack desperately seeks a way to make Pete famous in the press, with his cousin Frankie’s help, since famous people don’t get drafted. The boy’s innocence points out the national shame—Vietnam was the first war the elite sat out.
Gradually, we realize that this is all about the boy’s fear of death. The narrative shows how mortality emerges in the various parts of life the boy is aware of and what kinds of conflicts articulate for him what it means to grow up, possibly to become a man. It animates the novel and colors all the experiences of growing up that he narrates in telling his family’s story: friendship, falling in love, the difficulties his parents must face and the toll that takes, as well as all the events of small-town life—from church life to the local drive-in theater with all the troubles of youth, to the Fourth of July parade that brings the whole town together—and the adventuring in the wilderness that boys love. Only politics, which is the concern of adults, is remarkably free of what might be called this existential angst. There is a part of the novel in which the town and the country folk, brought together partly by the local pastor, have to face corrupt local politicians in the pocket of big business, industrial capitalists. It’s a test of community, and there the boyish fear is largely absent, because concern for justice is practical.
This is Rivers’ debut novel and I hazard the guess that he has not yet mastered the difference between earnest writing and writing earnest characters, which gives trouble because his protagonist is also the narrator. In the last third of the novel, this boy becomes incredibly whiny—screaming, running, doing reckless things one after another, endangering his life and that of others, which at points becomes unpleasant to read. Perhaps men will tend to share my opinion while women will understand the sensitive boy’s suffering more, since he loves his family and feels helpless to spare them life’s sorrows. The novel’s success has to do with how the “aw shucks” boy charms the audience in the beginning, but eventually his cowardice becomes a problem. Endearing as he may have begun, sentimentality inevitably ends up with cruelty, and we see quite a bit of that at the end. One could call it punishing the audience for gullibility.
Now, the narrator is the least active character in the plot, since he has none of the virtues of his older siblings, but choosing him as narrator is perhaps Rivers’s canniest choice, because it brings to fore his concern with religion. Jack is learning that being a Christian might mean having a conscience, feeling guilt, fearing what suffering might further entail, dreaming hellish visions. Since he is not an adult, he has a natural desire for beauty and strength, which makes him want victory and revenge, even cruelty, rather than forgiveness.
Last Summer Boys dramatizes startlingly this conflict in the boy’s heart and thus gets at the American conflict over whether our belief in justice, our love of our families, our pursuit of freedom need or allow Christian faith to underpin them. The suggestion implicit in paralleling the boyish and the national drama of lost innocence is that America’s conscience was part of the trouble of the ’60s, and it was why people could neither fix the political problems nor confess what was bothering them.
The idealized portraits of the parents also point out a problem. The Elliott boys face very serious difficulties because they are not properly prepared to face evil. Their savage state of nature is a state of peace; they go around swimming naked, since they live in Eden, testing their courage by diving from a height. (I cannot spoil the plot for you—I’m sure you would enjoy the adventure—so I will only say that the shocking events in the plot surprise and even perplex them.) In one telling scene, father Gene tells young Jack, “Life’s not fair, you should know that by now.” Well, the reader must ask: Who educated him to believe life’s fair? Perhaps it’s his mother’s idealism, which demands of him never to treat anyone as though that person’s life didn’t matter, which ultimately leads to the Christian command to love even your enemy. There is a great tension between the two parents that the reader must trace and think through to understand what’s happening in the plot, why the metaphors are chosen as they are, and why the earnestness of the narration is so important.
I am not against idealization in literature, because it brings out the important problems I mentioned. But it requires exquisite taste, and here I have one criticism to make. Rivers would have been well advised not to choose as his cinematic cultural touchstone, which brings the town together and spellbinds the audience, Arthur Penn’s very popular 1967 movie,Bonnie and Clyde. It’s such an ugly movie that it would have repelled the decent, religious Gene and Addie, who were taking their kids to the movies to take their minds off their trouble.
Still, this is an all-American story and bound to win over even more readers who will wish Rivers well, as I do. I hope I’ve shown that there is a depth and a tension to the story, emerging from American history, on the one hand, and a specifically Christian outlook, on the other. But I should add, in conclusion, that Rivers’ example should inspire other conservatives to turn to writing. His success should teach them lessons about how to succeed as well, and about what’s going on in America that needs dramatizing. Maybe a new concern with history will make people more serious and more hopeful, since they will see the nation endure much suffering without failing.