Maine’s Jim Nichols is one of those authors who write of their locale (in Mr. Nichols’ case, the fictional Baxter, Maine) in a way similar to that of Miramichi’s Wayne Curtis: it transcends the small-town environs with a larger than life writing style. In other words, you don’t have to live here (or there) to “get it”.
It has been five years since Islandport Press released Mr. Nichol’s short story collection Closer All The Time and he has come back with a novel that uses his life’s experiences to the full. Blue Summer is the story of Cal Shaw. Tellingly, it begins in 1997 in Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren Maine.
So I thought I’d try to write this down. Chances are I’m no literary savant, but I promise my heart’s in the right place, and I have been a world-class bookworm for my whole pathetic life, so maybe that will help. Who knows? I guess we’ll see. I think it’s worth telling, at any rate, and I don’t see anyone else volunteering to do it. And Lord knows I’ve got plenty of time now to try and figure it out, thanks to the Great State of Maine.
Cal’s real story actually begins back in Baxter Maine in 1964, and he is ten years old. It is the 4th of July and the town is celebrating, as only small-town America can: red, white and blue bunting, horseshoes, barbecue, pony rides and fun for all. Cal has two older siblings, Alvin and Julie. Cal’s parents are John (Jack) and Betty. Gus Shaw (no relation) was Jack’s best friend during the war and followed him back to Maine where he lives just down the road. As such, he is given the honorific of “Uncle”. Uncle Gus is one of those characters that fill a major role in a story while remaining a minor character. Keep your eye on him, for he is an angel in disguise.
This particular July 4th, Cal tells us that everything will start to go “sideways”. Returning home after the day’s festivities, it is later in the evening that Jack announces he is going out to join a poker game. “Please don’t drink too much,” Betty tells him. There’s no need to guess what happens later on. It is Uncle Gus who Betty calls to see where Jack might be. Gus, who left the poker game early goes searching and finds Jacks’ car off the road and flipped over on its roof. A dead deer lies near the wreckage. The Shaw family is now fatherless and Betty who originally was from California) finds herself needing to find a job to keep house and home together. In time, she marries Randy Pike, a successful realtor and a not-so-nice guy. He refers to the Shaw children as “termites” and demands respect instead of earning it. The petulant teenager Julie is a particular target, and this brings out the creepier side of Pike. I’m going to end the synopsis here, for saying any more will spoil the story.
Blue Summer is an effortless read, but that doesn’t mean it is without deeper meaning, symbolism and moments of delicate thoughts. Cal, who becomes a semi-professional Jazz cornet player, has only music and memories to keep him going, and at one point even this does not suffice and suicide has become a very real choice. The Blue Summer of the title is not a moment in time, it is a fragment of a melody that comes to Cal at this lowest point of his life.
At first its barely present, like a leftover piece of dream. It doesn’t flicker and fade though, and then it takes on enough shape that I can hear it clearly.
It is this bit of a tune that gives Cal a purpose and lifts him up out of his present state and it provides not only a purpose but takes him to a particular place and time in his life that needs closure and a wee bit of justice as well. Thus begins the journey from an old rundown trailer park in Tampa to Baxter Maine, some twenty years later.
There is a poignant scene on the Greyhound bus ride north as Cal finds himself travelling with a woman and her grandson (who are black) and are on their way back to Boston, so they have time to get to know one another. The grandson, who is a teen plays trumpet too, Cal is told. This proves to be the connection that transcends generational and racial lines. Cal lets Georgie blow on his cornet. A bond is formed. Music does that.
Blue Summer is full of moments. Each chapter is fairly brief, and reader always knows where they are in Cal’s timeline. Those who enjoy Jazz will particularly enjoy the musical references, but it’s not necessary to know who people like Clifford Brown or Freddie Hubbard were. What is at stake for Cal (and for the reader too) is the question of how things will go once Cal gets to Baxter. We feel his nervous excitement as he revisits old haunts in Portland where he lived after leaving Baxter, some of which are gone. But he is not ready, not yet, to go home. There are other ghosts that still swirl around his consciousness, like the melody of Blue Summer does.
- Blue Summer by Jim Nichols
- ISBN-13 : 978-1952143038
- Paperback : 256 pages
- Publisher : Islandport Press (Aug. 31 2020)
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