“…there’s a darkness on the edge of town.” – Bruce Springsteen
It’s summer. The days are long, the nights are short, and as I look over my bookshelf, a few favorite titles bring a Bruce Springsteen lyric to mind:
“There’s a darkness on the edge of a town.”
Maybe it’s just me, but I think there’s a sensorial magic inherent in reading a novel during the season it is set in. Have you ever cozied up with A Christmas Carol during a December snow? If you have, I’m sure you know what I mean.
So this summer, as Covid-19 haunts a notably hazy and sweltering July, and readers and streamers continue to flock to Stranger Things and Stephen King’s It, I have three novels I want to recommend that seem perfect for this particular summer.
They are Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, Summer of Night by Dan Simmons, and Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon.
Each book celebrates the wonder and innocence of childhood, but each one also speaks to a lurking darkness that exists at the edges of our heroes’ worlds. A darkness that cuts through stark sunshine, and is held at bay by protective parents, uncomfortable truths, and unspoken secrets.
All three novels feature twelve-year-old boys, and all three begin with the end of the school year and the onset of summer vacation.
In the hands of Bradbury, Simmons, and McCammon summer is not just a season: it’s a state of being, and a character unto itself. The feeling conjured is a sticky ocean of possibility. It is a feeling of magic – both other-worldy and hyper-real. The days are endless, the light is brilliant, and the world is fresh and full of unlimited adventures (especially if you’re a twelve-year-old boy).
Dandelion Wine and Summer of Night take place in small towns in Illinois. Ray Bradbury grew up in Waukegan, called Green Town in Dandelion Wine. His story is set there in the summer of 1928. Dan Simmons spent his early years outside Peoria, Illinois, in a little town called, Brimfield—in the novel called Elm Haven. Similar to McCammon’s small fictional town of Zephyr, Alabama in Boy’s Life.
Both Simmons and McCammon use the early 1960s for their respective coming of age stories; it’s a halcyon portrait of a bygone era (that maybe never existed). It’s a few years before war and cultural revolution would radically alter the American landscape, and things still appeared tranquil. Mostly.
All three novels feature an organic American magical realism. The stories are more than simply the boys’ adventures. In Summer of Night and Boy’s Life there is a darkness present that lies just outside and within the small towns and innocent lives of the protagonists. There are magical and fantastical creatures.
In Summer of Night, the darkness is an ancient evil rising and a series of terrifying events, and yes Virginia, there are monsters!
In Boy’s Life, the darkness comes in the form of the real and the supernatural: the Birmingham bombings, the assassinations, the Vietnam war, the student and social unrest, A Nazi doctor hiding out, the ghost of boy burned in a fire, a giant fish called Moses who lurks in the darkest parts of the river, and best of all, a magical bike.
In Dandelion Wine, the reader knows the bucolic setting of Green Town will be caught up in the Great Depression that is about to consume the world, but until then, it is a paradise for a boy. The readers know everything will change for the boys in these books, in their lives, and in the world around them. And knowing makes what happens in each of the novels all the more bittersweet.
During this Covid-19 lockdown, each of these three novels will transport you to a time and place not too far away. I think you’ll recognize the place. I suggest you read these during the heat of a late summer afternoon, or maybe as evening falls, sitting out on your porch. You might just catch a flash of color and the sounds of the boys of summer racing by on their bikes, yelling to one another with the unbridled joy of children free of school, parents, and the responsibilities of adulthood—and the darkness forming at the edge of town.