When Autopsy Bliss writes an open letter inviting the devil to come to the small town of Breathed, no one expects him to be a little boy, whose arrival coincides with a heatwave intense enough to drive the town mad, riled up into a violent mob by extremists. Autopsy’s son Fielding is the first to meet the boy, Sal. Fielding befriends Sal and they take him into their home. Is he really the devil, just a runaway, or something else? Strange things are happening in the town. Surreal, dreamlike moments of heat and horror that could only be from hell.
The heat came with the devil. It was the summer of 1984, and while the devil had been invited, the heat was not. It should’ve been expected, though.
A lot of reviewers have compared this to To Kill a Mockingbird. You’ve got the lawyer father with the weird name, who is one of the only sane and fair people in the town. You’ve got the townsfolk who are looking for someone to pin their problems on. There are the race issues. The loss of innocence. The violent mob, and the child’s narrative perspective. These are common themes, though, and the similarity is, I think, superficial. On a deeper level this book is dreamlike in style (or perhaps nightmarish) and more akin to something by Geoffrey Eugenides than Harper Lee. It’s a gothic tale with a heavy dose of Romanticism, and it comes together in the form of surprising, surreal and evocative imagery.
It was a heat that didn’t just melt tangible things like ice, chocolate, Popsicles. It melted all the intangibles too. Fear, faith, anger, and those long-trusted templates of common sense. It melted lives as well, leaving futures to be slung with the dirt of the gravedigger’s shovel.
The story is told from the perspective of Fielding Bliss, many years later as he looks back on that awful summer. Older Fielding is a wreck of a man, suicidal and filled with regret for the things that took place. The contrast between him and the young boy who went for a walk to buy some chocolate on a pleasant summer day, the day he met the devil, is striking. Sal is a hypnotic character. You’re left guessing whether he is really the devil or not, right to the end of the book, but you also empathise with him from the first moment of meeting him.
If the devil was going to come, I expected to see the myth of him. A demon with an asphalt shine. He’d be fury. A chill. A bad cough. Cujo at the car window, a ticket at the Creepshow booth, a leap into the depth of night.
The Guardian calls McDaniel’s imagery “overwrought”, as she talks about mud having moods, or star-soaked songs. On the contrary, I found it refreshingly different. McDaniel plays with the images but she also plays with the sounds of the words, lulling you in with a subtly building rhythm. The words thrum and throb, and the imagery is like the haze rising off a hot tar road; it’s hard to make out and it obscures the meaning a little but it evokes the feeling of the moment so vividly and on so many different levels at once, that it’s like the many angles of a Picasso painting, showing everything from all directions at once. It is the imagery and style of this novel that makes it one of the most distinctive and interesting books I have read all year. Add the brilliantly complex plot and you’ve got a winning book.
I imagined him with reptilian skin in a suit whose burning lapel set off fire alarms. his fingernails sharp as teeth and cannibals in ten different ways. Snakes on him like tar. Flies buzzing around him like an odd sense of humor. There would be hooves, horns, pitchforks. Maybe a goatee.
So it is surprising that it has not been getting the kind of recognition you would expect. Why aren’t more people talking about this book and buying it? Perhaps it is a matter of timing; with the similarities to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the timing of The Summer That Melted Everything being released within a week of Go Set A Watchman is unlucky. But this is a summer book; I read it in the smothering heat of a Texan summer. However, it is also a topical book – the current anger towards outsiders and minorities in small-town America is something that could do with some literary focus.
The lukewarm past had been overtaken by the scalding now. Gone was the perfect temperature. The breeze. All replaced by an almost violent heat that turned your bones into volcanoes, your blood into lava that yelled their eruptions. Folks would later talk about that sudden onset of heat. It was their best evidence of the devil’s arrival.
When the tough issues are viewed through the filter of fiction, they become easier to deal with emotionally. Xenophobia, racism, bigotry, religious extremism, incitement to violence by a loud minority – these are the things that are at the forefront of American minds as we head into what feels like the end days of civil politics. This is the perfect time for a book like this. It is a book that should be read, discussed, taught. It is a book that, although set in the 1980s, is a sharp commentary on contemporary issues and that makes it a classic.
About the Author
Tiffany McDaniel is an Ohio native whose writing is inspired by the rolling hills and buckeye woods of the land she knows. She is also a poet, playwright, screenwriter, and artist. The Summer that Melted Everything is her debut novel.