Pros: A painterly book, written completely in simple, vivid verse.
Cons: It's one of those "that one magic summer" books.
Robert Cormier's 1999 novel Frenchtown Summer occupies that haunted Gothic fog between coming-of-age nostalgia and murder mystery; at once as quietly wistful as an old man's memory and as shiveringly creepy as a flash recollection of an old family shame, it alternately recalls the lovingly delivered deadpan humor of Woody Allen's Rockaway stories and the eerie house-next-door horror of Stephen King's The Body. It's one of Cormier's last books (he died in 2000), and it also strikes me as one of his most personal - not just because it is set in the days of Cormier's childhood in the kind of working class ethnic enclave he might have grown up in, but also because he's written the entire story in verse.
But then to call this book a novel, or even a story, is probably misleading. Rather, Frenchtown Summer has the wide, dreamy scope of a mural. Its action doesn't rise to a climax and fall away. It's decentralized and nonlinear. One imagistic anecdote appearing as another fades away, leading to another, and another, almost - almost - randomly, the way thoughts pop into our heads when we've got no one else to keep us company. One minute, our narrator, Eugene, is dazzling to the vividness of the world after getting his first pair of eyeglasses; the next, he's falling into the most impossible kind of love... with Sister Angela, whose sudden arrival in Frenchtown and equally - devastatingly - sudden departure from it - inexplicable, yes, but not really that inexplicable - cut right to the core of those silent adolescent shames:
Mute in her presence
tripping on the carpet's edge,
I was a pathetic lover.
By the time I learned
to play "The Song of the Rose"
without tripping fingers
she had vanished
There is a central mystery that hovers around the book's peripheries, skulking in the darker corners of Eugene's happier memories of his dawning self-awareness as a young man - the unexpected blossoming of his relationship with his father; the smells from both his mother's kitchen and the sewage plant near the end of his paper route. Actually, like most remembered childhoods, there are lots of mysteries here - things wondered about but never truly explained or even explainable so many decades on; and the sometimes painful hypotheses we put together from the otherwise harmless clues we have. A box full of tie-clips. A dream of a girl playing jacks. A bright orange airplane that nobody else was there to see.
Frenchtown Summer is a book that invites a second read, and a third, and a fourth. It also invites us to bounce from chapter to chapter, just as a mural invites the eye to sway from scene to scene in our own self-choreographed dance over the canvas. And then, standing back further from it, it finally reveals itself as a magnificent, never-fully-knowable whole. If there's anything to detract from the book's overall sense of wonder, it's that the ground covered here is familiar from so many other sources. But Cormier's poetry, simple and spare but loaded with stirringly realized observations, often (though not always) makes this territory feel unexplored, both eye- and mind-openingly mysterious. And harrowingly beautiful.
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MORE ROBERT CORMIER:
The Chocolate War (1974)
Beyond the Chocolate War (1985)
Other Bells for Us to Ring (1990)
We All Fall Down (1991)
Tunes for Bears to Dance To (1992)
In the Middle of the Night (1995)
The Rag and Bone Shop (2001)