The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”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.”
Slipping Away by Tiffany McDaniel. If you preorder the book you can sign up here Tiffany McDaniel's Preorder Contest to win some cool stuff including a signed print of this watercolor.
The heat wave that hit Breathed, Ohio, in 1984 was no ordinary hot spell. It was oppressive and inescapable. It was as if the cellar door to hell had been laid open beneath their feet. Sweat dripped from their pores like the tears of the damned. Tempers flared under the constant, ruthless lash of unbearable high temperatures. Reason floated away into the atmosphere and was replaced by superstition and irrationality.
And it was all Autopsy Bliss’s fault.
He did write the letter, after all.
”Dear Mr. Devil, Sir Satan, Lord Lucifer, and all other crosses you bear,
I cordially invite you to Breathed, Ohio. Land of hills and hay bales, of sinners and forgivers.
May you come in peace.
With great faith,
The Devil accepted.
Now Autopsy Bliss is an educated man, a lawyer in fact, but he got bit by the fire and brimstone of religion. When he issued this letter to the newspaper, did he really expect the Devil to appear before him? Did he think he could wrestle Lucifer or spar with Satan, and The Cross would assure him a fair fight?
I don’t think that Autopsy Bliss expected a creature with cloven hooves, forked tail, and horns to appear on his doorstep. Lucifer is a fallen angel, not a demon, and certainly not the creature of fairytale, or the fiendish incarnation he has been depicted in films, or the lurid spectacle he has become on the covers of pulp novels.
It turns out he is a thirteen year old black boy with green eyes. He was, in fact, the same age as Fielding Bliss. He calls himself Sal.
”If looks were to be believed, he still was just a boy. Something of my age, though from his solemn quietude, I knew he was old in the soul. A boy whose black crayon would be the shortest in his box.”
Autopsy might have had a more realistic vision of Satan in his mind than the cartoon version, but it still took some mental gymnastics to even begin to believe that Sal was the Devil. The heat has eroded minds. Logic is a bonfire. Familiar perceptions are a blaze. When things start to go wrong for people, they start to believe that the implausible is suddenly the only possible explanation.
Fielding’s mother Stella hasn’t left the house in twelve years. When she withdrew from the world, she decided to bring the world to her by turning each room of her house into a different country. Grand is Fielding’s older brother, a young man on the cusp of the rest of his life. He is a God of the ballfield, but also a man of character and sensitivity that makes him so much more than just the sum of his parts. Fielding worships him, as he should. Grand is someone we can all aspire to be more like.
He is a worthy sacrifice.
”A summer’s day, and with the setting sun
Dropt from the zenith, like a falling star”
---Milton, Paradise Lost
It is one thing to never find paradise, but of course it is quite another thing to have found it and lost it. For a family named Bliss, they have watched the gates of Eden shimmer behind them and disappear.
Sal becomes the third son.
I think what the people of Breathed forgot about was that the concept of the Devil is manifested in all of us. You might not see him when you look in the mirror dead on, but turn your head to the side and look out of the corner of your eye, and you might catch a glimpse of him. He is reflected in your fingernails when the light is just right. Sometimes, if you close your eyes down to slits, you can see him in the swirls of your pancake. He stares at us from the darkness, from the bowel of a tree, or through the eyes of an owl. You can’t kill him. You can’t kill the light that has fallen to darkness.
Why would God let you?
”People always ask, Why does God allow suffering? Why does He allow a child to be beaten? A woman to cry? A holocaust to happen? A good dog to die painfully? Simple truth is, He wants to see for Himself what we’ll do. He’s stood up the candle, put the devil at the wick, and now He wants to see if we blow it out or let it burn down. God is suffering’s biggest spectator.”
The town begins to suffer from mass insanity. Call it the heat, but there is this dark desire in too many of us that rises to the surface, unchecked, when we are challenged.
Tiffany McDaniel might be a young writer, but this is no raw first novel. She is wise with bone deep perceptions of who we are and who we become when we allow hysteria or religious fervor to dictate our actions. She writes with conviction and complexity that forced this reader to reread sentences and paragraphs to better appreciate the uniquely, creative ways she composes her thoughts. The setting is in the North, but some of the Southern Gothic of the deep South leaped over the Mason-Dixon line into Ohio. I also could swear I witnessed the ghost of Douglas Spaulding running through the woods with Fielding Bliss and saw the flash of his bare feet as he dived back into the pages of Dandelion Wine. I thought I saw Shirley Jackson lost in the loose limbs of the mob...her eyes as big as dinner plates and her mouth opened in a.... ”That was when the screaming started. They were screaming cheers, we were screaming tears, and Sal was screaming fear. A rhyme of the ages.”
Who among us can stop them? Who can wiggle a screwdriver between the door and the jam and let the cooling balm of reason flood the hallways of a fevered mind?
The author and NetGalley provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Tiffany McDaniel was gracious enough to agree to answer a few of my questions about the novel. Below is a short interview I conducted with her.
Jeffrey Keeten:As I was reading your book I couldn't help thinking about Dandelion Wine. Have I been out in the heat too long or am I right about this book being somewhat of a homage to the Ray Bradbury book?
Tiffany McDaniel:I love Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, so I’m beyond thrilled that you’ve brought it up. I always say I want to be buried with the novel, have it in the clutches of my ghost to carry forth in to the great beyond. Having read it many times, I’ve always wanted to write a story about boys coming-of-age in the summertime. Those two events seem to parallel one another as if summer exists in childhood itself. On the surface Dandelion Wine is about boys coming-of-age, but what Bradbury does so well is threading that melancholic undertone through his verse, his own bittersweet brand that makes his stories and his story-telling the mark of a true master. Life and death, happiness and sadness, these are the things that permeate both Bradbury’s novel and my own. No one can ever surpass Bradbury’s beautiful writing and story, but perhaps my story is a way of recognizing the beautiful force that has been Dandelion Wine in my life.
Jeffrey Keeten:Paradise Lost obviously had a heavy influence on the writing of this book. You certainly have left me thinking I need to schedule a reread of PL. You also mentioned Orwell's 1984 in the book. In thinking about the scope of this book what other books would you say had a heavy influence in the creation of this book?
Tiffany McDaniel:I first read Milton’s epic poem when I was in my early twenties. I was immediately drawn to it because it’s about that which has always fascinated me. The fall from grace. The very thing that is said to have cast all the curses upon us as human beings, and put the sins within reach. I always title my chapters in my novels, and when I was thinking of the chapter titles for The Summer that Melted Everything, “Paradise Lost” immediately came to mind. How could it not be the perfect partner for this summer? Though I do hope I have made Milton proud by including his beautiful quotes, quotes which do outshine my own words by a billion, sparkling miles.
As far as Orwell’s 1984, it’s one of those required readings that most everybody has in school. I was so fascinated by it, if only because the year 1984 has passed already, but also because it was a novel predicting a certain state of affairs where citizens are manipulated and all independent thought is a crime. It’s hard to talk about 1984 the novel and its reason for being in The Summer that Melted Everything without giving any spoilers away, but I’ll just say that both Orwell’s novel and my novel speak of that herd mentality. How easy it is to come about and how threatening it is to individual choice.
As far as other influencers on The Summer that Melted Everything, I can’t think of another book in particular, but reading in general just adds layer after layer to one’s soul. And with a book like The Summer that Melted Everything where we’re looking at the balance between good and evil, well those are things we see every day on the nightly news. Look no further than our daily life, and we are surrounded by the fuel to write about chaos and peace, good and bad. If anything, the book of life itself is the spinning wheel to a story like this.
Jeffrey:The book is set in Ohio, but it has such a Southern Gothic feeling to it that I kept thinking the geography could have easily been set in the Deep South such as Donna Tartt's home state of Mississippi or Flannery O'Connor's Georgia or Harper Lee's Alabama. You must have encountered some of that Gothic magical realism in Ohio?
Tiffany: Breathed, Ohio, the fictional town in the novel is based on my childhood summers and school-year weekends spent in southern Ohio on the hilly acreage and in the cinderblock house my father was left to him by his parents. Southern Ohio, while in a northern state, does very much have that southern United State twang to it. “Ain’t” is as abundant as the wildflowers in the fields, and bullfrogs are the music of the night. It’s a very front porch type of place. It’s a place that has shaped me as an author. I’ve said before, cut me open and there will be a release of fireflies and moon-shine. In many ways, southern Ohio was a magical place to me because it was so different from the more northern part of Ohio where I lived and went to school. That southern portion, the foothills of the Appalachians, is a part of Ohio that has its own magical myths. I was told the hills were full of tigers, released there by a zoo gone belly-up. I would stand on the creek edge and see a gar go swimming by, thinking it was an alligator. Added to this, I’ve always had a gothic mind. Wishing I could live in a derelict mansion with velvet curtains and Shirley Jackson spires. Wolves howling, spiders webbing, magic churning night after night…
Jeffrey: Autopsy Bliss goes on my list of greatest character names in literary history. As I was reading the book I started jotting down the character names because I was struck by the unusual nature of most of the names. Do you start with a name or do they sometimes remain nebulous personalities in search of the right name for a while as you write?
Tiffany: First off, thank you for the incredibly wonderful compliment of Autopsy’s name. I’m sure Autopsy himself would be quite pleased. When I start writing the characters, I do have to have their name from the beginning. Having their name really helps to create and flush out the character. I can’t write them without a name. It’s like walking in dark woods by myself, calling for the characters to come out from the trees. But if I don’t have a name to call, who is there to come out?
Jeffrey: I jotted down this question while I was still in the early stages of reading the book. Would you want to live with the Bliss Family? They are ethereally wonderful, but of course the tragedies that find them as the plot unfolds probably answers that question. This is truly a book about bad things happening to good people. Are they still walking around in your head or have you managed to lock them in a back room of your mind so you can move onto your next novel?
Tiffany: To answer your first question, I would want to live with the Bliss family, if only because I love them all so much. Even with the tragedies that reshape them as a family, I would live with them. Be their daughter, their sister, their best friend, the one crying with them, laughing with them. As the author, I’ve already done all these things. I’ve already felt like I’ve lived in the house with them. What is home, if not with the people we love? I will always share a life with the Bliss Family, as I do my real family. To me there is no difference, because while fictional, the Bliss family exists for me.
I always say my characters feel real to me. Maybe I won’t get to physically interact with them in this world, but I feel as if in another plane of the universe, or even the afterlife, I’ll be able to speak to them, to recognize them as people who have lived full lives from womb to coffin. I always say my characters do not begin with the first page I’ve written. They do not end with the last. They existed before and they exist after the book. There are moments and experiences they have that none of will ever know as author and reader. In every way, they are as fully human as any of us. And they are always with me. Even when I write another novel. They are there. They just politely sit down, so new characters can stand up.
Jeffrey: Speaking of next novel, where does Tiffany McDaniel go from here?
Tiffany: I have eight completed novels. I’m working on my ninth right now. I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen. I wouldn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine. I spent eleven years struggling to get published. Rejection after rejection made me fear I never would be published. So much heart-ache and pain on the journey to publication, I can’t believe I’m about to be a published novelist. Publishing does move at a snail’s pace, and even with the contract I’ve waited two years for the book to move through the publishing house to the shelf. I’m thirty-one now, having waited in total thirteen years to see one of my novels on the shelf. So where I go from here is to just keep writing. Hoping The Summer that Melted Everything does well enough for me to have the other books published as well. The novel I’m hoping to follow The Summer that Melted Everything up with is When Lions Stood as Men. It’s about a Jewish brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany, flee across the Atlantic, and end up in my land of Ohio of all places. While here they create their own camp of judgment where they serve as both the guards and the prisoners. It’s a story of surviving the guilt that threatens to undo us all. More so, it’s about surviving love and the time when lions once stood as men.
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