The Boys of Summer
by Ciarán West
(This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.)
When some writers are busy procrastinating on the the projects they are “supposed” to be working on, they turn to the internet and instead write about, discuss, or shake a fist over the State of Publishing/Reviewing/Words. Many an article deals with the pros and cons of self-publishing, the pros and cons of negative reviews, or the pros and cons of reviewing the work of someone you know. We all get wrapped up in what we’re “supposed” to talk about, how writing is “supposed” to work, and often forget that, while a method may work for a large percentage of people, it is not the be-all, end-all of anything to do with writing.
See: MFA programs, large publishing houses, indie publishing, using social media, agents.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that what the crowd thinks is right may not feel right on a personal level. And that’s OK. So is changing our mind.
This is the part where I say I knew Ciarán West before he self-published The Boys of Summer, and while I’m not planning on self-publishing a novel, I have no quibble with other people doing it — as long as that book is really good. Once again, I found myself understanding why people do not want to review the books from people they know because, well, what if it’s awful? But West is a big boy, and he can presumably handle anything I have to say.
You know what? The Boys of Summer is really very good, better even than some novels I’ve read this year that were published in a more traditional manner. Is it perfect? No, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
The book takes place in 1989 Limerick, Ireland, during a very hot week in which almost-twelve-year-old Richie South finds himself in love with the new neighbor girl, Marian, and sucked into the mystery of who killed five-year-old Tommy Kelly. Richie and his friends think they know who did it, but their investigation brings dredges up conflicting feelings of terror, responsibility, and a strain on their formerly close-knit group. Richie’s older brother Chris is the one who breaks the news:
‘Fuck off, really?’ Shane couldn’t believe what Chris was telling us. I couldn’t either, but I was keeping quiet; he’d know I was wrecked if I tried to talk; he’d tell Mam, straight away. The whitener was wearing off, but still.
‘Really, yeah. Fin was down in Frazer’s this morning with his da. Tony served him a Carling and everything; didn’t say nothing.’ Fintan Kelly was older than us, but he was still only fourteen. Tony Frazer wouldn’t sell you a pack of fags without a note from your mother.
‘Tom, though? Small little Tom. How? He’s only a toddler, shur.’ Dermot looked like he was angry; he was nearly crying. I wanted to be in bed. I was too young to be drinking or smoking gear, and I just wanted Mam. I kept looking at Chris, then looking away before he looked back.
From there, the speculation and rumors only escalate. Shane, the leader through a strong-arming personality, talks the others into investigating. Richie doesn’t know how to feel. Despite wanting desperately not to be seen as a little kid anymore, he’s not so sure he likes being thrust into the world of adults in this way.
When it comes to Marian, he’s also thrilled and confused by her attention. She’s a couple years older than him, yet is completely uninterested in his brother Chris. Richie tries to play it cool, but she takes an odd delight in exploiting his nervousness, his desire:
‘D’you want to do something naughty, Richard?’ She put her hand down the front of her shorts. Jesus Christ, she was going to take her fanny out and show me it and everything!
‘Sorry about the squashing, I had to find somewhere to put them.’ She’d pulled two fags out of her knickers. Thank God!
‘Have you a light?’ I did. I stayed standing up; she was sitting on the grass. The fag tasted gorgeous, cos I was smoking it with her.
‘It was funny when yer man in the shop asked was I your girlfriend, wasn’t it?’ she said, dragging on her fag.
‘Yeah.’ I said. No it wasn’t funny; I’d nearly gone purple.
‘Have you a girlfriend, no?’ she said, in a little quiet voice. I liked all of her voices.
‘Ah, not at the moment, no.’ Not ever.
‘Awww. Why not?’
‘Dunno,’ I said. I didn’t like how she’d said ‘Awww’. Like she was feeling sorry for me.
‘You never know, eh?’ she said, winking at me.
West rides the line of child/teenager well, and Richie’s voice doesn’t fall prey to “adult who thinks he’s writing in the voice of a child” that I’ve seen in other books. This isn’t “eleven and three-quarters” filtered through retrospect; it’s simply the voice of a kid who will describe himself as that age.
Because of that voice, and the speaking style of his friends, the text is very Limerick-slang heavy. Part of me says that some of it is overdone, and that readers could get a sense of it without quite as much “that’s pure rapid” and whatnot. A good editor would know the proper balance. Still, the other part of me says, Have you spoken to any kids lately? They fixate on words. Yesterday, my son sang a made-up song about pumas all goddamn day. And almost-teenagers are going to do up the swearing, the inside jokes and slang because they can. So without spending an extended period with this book in editor-mode, I can’t say for certain what the right level of Limerickness is, so to speak. On a side note, an editor would have also caught a few formatting and typo issues, but that’s a small complaint when compared to the effectiveness of the story.
The story, its pacing and content, is absolutely enthralling. Normally, I am extremely slow about reading e-books because I have no reader for them other than my laptop, so they don’t make for good before-bed reading. Instead, I tend to catch up on them while I’m folding laundry. I hate folding laundry, so I only manage a handful of pages at a time.
Reading The Boys of Summer, my laundry was exceptionally folded. The kids could find matched socks, and the mister wondered why he couldn’t find any clean workshirts, until he realized I’d actually washed, folded and put away all of them. Clothes not in a laundry basket? What is this madness?
So if you know me, you know that I’ve just given West a major compliment. He wants to make you uncomfortable, yet you want to press forward. The narrative speeds along breathlessly, all culminating in an ending that’s simultaneously inevitable and unbelievable.
If this book were published by Harper or some other big publisher, I am confident that it would get scores of attention. As a small release, I’ve seen it well-received, and I hope that my review directs at least a few more readers its way. Yes, I know the author, but I do pride myself in being fair. The Boys of Summer is worth your time and money.