Among the many indelible images in “How to Survive a Summer,” the debut novel by Nick White, is a creepy princess mask. It’s worn by a gay serial killer in “Proud Flesh,” a teen slasher flick based on a memoir by a survivor of a gay conversion camp. In White’s telling, the movie is dreadful, yet rather than offending gays, it becomes a cult classic, inspiring viewing parties in gay bars nationwide in which everyone dons a princess mask.
Does that sound twisted and meta enough for you? That’s exactly the kind of novel “How to Survive a Summer” is. White uses the painful controversy of so-called “conversion” camps, which aim to help queer youth “pray the gay away,” as a springboard for a traumatized loner’s story that’s both moving and melodramatic. The dissonance can be jarring, but it’s never boring.
“In the summer of 1999, when I was fifteen years old, I spent almost four weeks at a camp that was supposed to cure me of my homosexuality,” says Will “Rooster” Dillard. He’s a grudgingly self-accepting gay student at a Midwestern university who seems to have repressed some of the worst things that happened in that long-ago summer. But as the novel opens, the release of “Proud Flesh,” with its tawdry mix of real-life and made-up details about the camp in Will’s Mississippi homeland, has triggered in him a slow breakdown. “I learned the past is not the past,” he says, “a lump of time you can quarantine and forget about, but a reel of film in your brain that keeps on rolling, spooling and unspooling itself regardless of whether or not you are watching it.”
His emotional shutdown worries both Bevy, his bossy lesbian friend, and Zeus, a Latino transgender student with whom Will has embarked on an uneasy courtship. Among the pleasures of the novel is its broad pageant of contemporary LGBT types, all against the background of the Midwest or the Deep South.
Choking under the pressure of recovered memory, Will jumps in his old car and embarks on a going-back-to-face-my-past road trip to end all road trips. What ensues is a plunge into ever deeper, darker layers of Will’s personal history, with the slow revelation of cruelties and perversions.
Much of this leaping back into the past concerns Will’s family: his racially progressive yet deeply homophobic traveling-preacher dad; his free-spirited mother, who at one point joined a female community in the forest; and his Anita Bryant-like aunt, Mother Maude, an evangelical choir diva whose flamboyant wigs and caftans are matched only by her fervor for saving little boys from the dangers of the homosexual lifestyle (so they won’t die of AIDS in the fleshpot of New York, as did her beloved brother). And then there is Maude’s husband, who could be ripped from the reels of a 1970s gay S&M porn flick.
All that grits-and-Jesus local color undermines some of the genuine trauma of the gay conversion experience, which in real life has been denounced, discredited and, in some locales, outlawed. But therein lies the novel’s savvy: It adheres to a gay aesthetic tradition in which even the darkest subject matter isn’t too dark to be played for camp. A clear tone signal is provided in the first pages when we learn that Will has abandoned a dissertation on the melodramatic films of Douglas Sirk. And Will’s recounting of the “Proud Flesh” scenes are rendered with a gleefully observant eye for the stock conventions of horror movies.
But in keeping with another gay literary tradition, there is an abiding sorrow, a ruefulness, underneath the histrionics. We learn that Will has been abandoned by a previous boyfriend seeking “someone more open to something more real.” Will tells us, “I knew what he had meant. I’d heard it all before from the men who found themselves in my bed for longer than a night. . . . They spotted the trouble and sooner or later they were gone.” He is still too injured by his past experience to give of himself completely.
Some of the most affecting scenes are those in which Will and his old campmates reunite in Memphis, all now openly gay yet still damaged by their shared experience, often in subtly observed ways. As the survivors share snow cones and beers and engage awkwardly in both small talk and group sex, they conjure a poignant, humdrum believability that contrasts sharply with the outrageous, “Carrie”-like goings-on in the camp flashback scenes.
“How to Survive a Summer” is simply too packed with story and drama not to be consistently compelling. The novel often has the feel of an autobiographical story, brimming over as it does with vivid details of poor, rural Southern life. If Tennessee Williams’s “Suddenly Last Summer” could be transposed to the 21st-century South, where queer liberation coexists alongside the stubborn remains of fire and brimstone, it might read something like this juicy, moving hot mess of a novel.
Tim Murphy is the author, most recently, of “Christodora.”
By Nick White
Blue Rider. 341 pp. $26