A haunting ghost story, a mystery, a queer romance, an Appalachian street-racing adventure: it’s impressive enough that Lee Mandelo’s debut novel, Summer Sons, doesn’t get lost in its potentially-contradictory impulses. Even more impressive is the way it pulls these threads together—or, perhaps, is pulled and balanced between them—to tell a vibrant story of love and grief.
Set in Nashville and its rural surrounds, the novel follows one Andrew Blur as he seeks to unravel the apparent suicide of his adopted brother, Eddie. Haunted by figurative and, more pressingly, literal ghosts, Andrew attempts to navigate academic intrigue and solve ancient curses, all while thrashing his way into Eddie’s social circles and grappling with his own sexuality. By turns scary, sexy, and irreverent, Summer Sons is packed with a youthful intensity that frequently dives aside into strange and wistful sadness.
There are some seriously gory scenes here, some seriously steamy ones too, and the entire novel is enriched by a constant level of bodily awareness and detail: every bit of clothing, every gesture, every drop of sweat and inch of exposed skin. Andrew’s hyper-awareness of men’s bodies—particularly Sam Halse’s, Eddie’s former friend and fixer—is a possible tell for personal revelations he’ll come to later in the book, as are the hyper-masculine postures he’s constantly assuming or confronting. Andrew is also very aware of cars. Street racing culture, car culture, is deep in the bones of this book. Every time he gets in a car, it’s at once a chance to escape and an affirmation of his fundamental approach to life—reckless, yes, self-destructive, yes, but mostly because he’s so driven to get somewhere, hard as that is.
Although Summer Sons is keen, appropriately enough, to accelerate into the curves at key moments, its overall pace is strangely meandering. It’s not that it’s a bad mystery, it’s that Andrew is a phenomenally bad detective: only intermittently motivated, not particularly competent, and more emotionally invested in the case than actually focused on solving it. Eddie’s possible murder is the plot’s prime mover, but Andrew’s own trauma, and the complications he entangles himself in, take up far more space:
“Clumsily staggering from one confrontation to the next … none of that had organized intention behind it. He was acting on one impulse after another, hoping he’d find the right direction while dodging the shit that he’d rather ignore.”
It’s not as though Andrew’s under-organized approach to his central problems feels unrealistic: he’s twenty-three, and Summer Sons is positively dripping with a very specific kind of angst and drama. You don’t need to catch the passing Wonder Years reference to feel the difference—Southern Gothic this may be, but it’s less “Riders in the Sky” energy, more Warped Tour. The characters feel real, the cars feel real, and Mandelo absolutely nails the setting, right at this very specific intersection of Appalachia and collegiate uncertainty: the heat, the drinks, the casual physicality, the habits borne of rural poverty that recent affluence and city-living can’t entirely erase. The ghostly and magical elements, though disturbing, feel organic. To my eye there’s a slightly-conspicuous (if welcome) absence of gun culture, but the emphasis on the land itself, on old and bloody secrets, on lonesome roads and flexible families all combine for an honest and particular background that I rarely see in speculative fiction, and I’m here for it.
Andrew’s academic life, by comparison, is sketched out rather vaguely. It feels a bit like the narrator is too immersed in the university setting to remember to spell it out for us. That said, the glimpses of departmental infighting and grad student exploitation strike true, and Andrew’s racing and partying lifestyle feels like a classic procrastinator’s response to institutional responsibility, with the pressure continually mounting. The novel features otherworldly threats, fist-fights with bigots, and possibly murder most foul—but it’s the pointedly deferred text messages and unread email inbox that really stressed me out. Well done.
Ghost stories, of course, are a way to think about loss. Mandelo balances that almost positive sense of haunting—the absence, the ache, the desperate longing—with the negative, the spooksome: old debts, old crime, old guilt beyond the chance of reconciliation. Or not balance, so much as blend, trauma all tangled up with nostalgia. Part of Andrew, maybe, doesn’t want the mystery solved, the revenant banished, because that’s all that’s left of his love, and exorcising that demon means finally admitting it’s over:
“No one was coming home. The basket of clothes would remain unwashed, the guitar silent, the beer cans moldering. That immensity was the force that drove dogs to waste to death on their masters’ graves.”
Andrew’s primary tension is between a desire for the living and a desire for the dead, both of which he’s figuring out how to articulate. And that is, curiously enough, exactly where we are as readers: we want more, but we want closure, and those aren’t actually compatible. But, as Summer Sons repeatedly reminds us: a ghost, even one as tangible as Eddie’s revenant, is not actually who we’re missing. For all its ruminations on darkness, on loneliness and scars and bad decisions, I found Summer Sons ultimately rather comforting: no saccharine happily-ever-after, but figuring it out, and intensely alive.
By Lee Mandelo
Published September 28, 2021
Appalachian in the big city. Bookseller, specialty coffee pro, SF scholar.