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Book Reviews   |    
What Dies in Summer

by Tom Wright ; New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 2012, 288 pages, $25.95

Reviewed by Eben L. McClenahan, M.D., M.S.
Psychiatric Services 2012; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.631209
View Author and Article Information

Dr. McClenahan is assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans.

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I enjoyed reading this first novel by clinical psychologist Tom Wright of Texarkana, Texas. The narrative belongs to the adolescent protagonist, Biscuit (James), who is living with his cousin L. A. (Lee Ann), with whom he shares some clairvoyant abilities. They reside at the home of his grandmother, because his mother’s sociopathic boyfriend is a trained boxer who goes out of his way to create boxing matches in order to abuse Biscuit with his gloves. His grandmother had passed along “the Sight,” whereby they could sometimes envision the future. The story, developing across 35 chapters, features incest, a serial killer, and Biscuit’s romantic interests in his friend Diana, culminating in his first experience of kissing. There is also muskie fishing, a bear attack, and even a magical thunderstorm that drops hundreds of small silver fish into his grandmother’s front yard.

Biscuit’s coming of age is rendered in what can best be described as resembling a Faulknerian style, wherein his thoughts and observations are woven into a language that is folksy and emotional, while occasionally imbued with universal truths. When he mentions to L. A. his fascination with Diana’s legs when she is wearing a pair of summer white shorts, his cousin’s scowl lets him know that “I’d just run the flag of my ignorance up the pole again.” Biscuit discerns that there is a difference between being smart and being intelligent, “locating the center of gravity of a thing, finding the balance point of meaning and importance in it” and being “taken across a line we were never going to come back to.” He is aware of Diana’s ability to feel comfortable with a sense that the world is fundamentally safe, yet wonders how a smart girl can reach that conclusion. When an eccentric older woman gives Biscuit a stone, he is inclined to view it as a talisman and keeps the gift while stating “it was the center of something, full of meaning and warm with power.”

While Biscuit and L. A. collect bottles tossed from cars down a hill at the railroad tracks, they discover a naked dead girl supine with “a far away expression, as if being here dead like this were no big problem for her.” Biscuit tries to contain his sexual fascination with her nakedness and tries not to look at her “in the wrong places,” yet he then states “in spite of myself I wondered if she’d ever done it with anybody.” He also recognizes that he has seen her several times before, in the context of a recurring dream where she was standing at his bedside. Once alerted, the police want to enlist the cousins’ clairvoyant talents to resolve a series of murders, but Biscuit and his cousin decline.

I recommend this mystery, and of course I must not divulge its ending.

The reviewer reports no competing interests.

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