The Necessary Discomfort of the Southern Gothic — But Make it Personal: Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

I thought I was done with summer books for the year, and onto autumn reads. Hence, my dark academia binge. Luckily for me, I read Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo just in time, when the last dog days of summer were still upon us, even as school bells were ringing in the distance. May I say it was the perfect time for it? While the book does have a thread of dark academia, it is much more of a Southern Gothic novel, and as such it swelters with heat and horror. It is brilliant.

Andrew and Eddie were everything to each other — they were best friends, surrogate brothers, bonded deeply by a shared trauma in their childhood and a lifetime spent in each other’s shadows. At the start of the book, Eddie has died of an apparent suicide just days before Andrew was supposed to meet up with him in Nashville to start their shared graduate program in American studies at Vanderbilt University.

Andrew has inherited Eddie’s house, his stranger of a roommate, his fortune of several million dollars, and the mystery of what happened to him. Oh, and his ghost — a vicious, semi-corporeal spectre that climbs into and around Andrew with a tortuous hunger.

Summer Sons flawlessly hits all the notes of the Southern Gothic: unease, the grotesque, the haunted, the weird, the blood-soaked land. It winds you on a path into the dark history of the Deep South, whose past will not rest easy.

“The Southern Gothic brings to light the extent to which the idyllic vision of the pastoral, agrarian South rests on massive repressions of the region’s historical realities: slavery, racism, and patriarchy. Southern Gothic texts also mark a Freudian return of the repressed: the region’s historical realities take concrete forms in the shape of ghosts that highlight all that has been unsaid in the official version of southern history.”

Oxford Research Encyclopedias

And it doesn’t stop there. Andrew’s personal story parallels these themes, as his own repressed desires must be reckoned with. This is not a subplot: it is deeply entwined with the bigger picture of the mystery and the boys’ connection to the horrors of the land in ways that are both horrific and poignant.

Summer Sons is, among everything else, a paragon of characterization. The reason why this book hits so hard and satisfies so deeply is Lee Mandelo’s deft weaving of the characters, their personalities, and their personal demons into the narrative. Andrew’s clumsy investigation into Eddie’s death brings him into both collaboration and conflict with Eddie’s Nashville circle — most notably his roommate Riley, and Riley’s cousin Sam. Along with the ghost of Eddie (both metaphorically and literally), this quartet is the heart of the novel.

All four of them are fully realized and incredibly distinct: Riley with his gentle, persistent decency; Sam with his brazen audacity and fierce loyalty; Eddie with his casual entitlement and arrogant generosity, and Andrew, who is smart and starving and lost. And all four of them are united in their need for adrenaline and thrill-seeking, be it drag racing or drugs, sex or fighting.

Andrew held the clutch and eased onto the gas, pushing revs while the digital readout reminded him to hold it, wait for the right moment to explode. Sam’s fingers touched the rim of the moon hanging in the sky. A shudder ripped across the bones of Andrew’s forearms, terror and delight and the promise of risk bringing him to life.”

— Summer Sons

Eddie’s vividness is impressive, considering that he is dead when the book begins. We see him most clearly in the way that Andrew has been left a wreck — not only by Eddie’s death, but also by their toxic relationship in life. Left alone, Andrew has no idea who he is or how to live without Eddie directing him, and his raw grief and pain are sometimes difficult to read. And yet we see glimpses of Andrew’s deeper instincts, and as he cautiously circles Sam and Riley he has moments when he begins to feel out his own impulses and his own desires, both things he was accustomed to leaving in Eddie’s hands.

The metaphors of haunting and possession are not subtle. Eddie and Andrew are cursed by a link to the bloodstained land, and while Eddie is lured by this connection and the hauntings it entails, Andrew pushes it away. But with Eddie’s death, and his ghost’s hunger to possess Andrew, the curse becomes a chance to stay connected to the man whose complicated desires have shaped Andrew’s life.

Eddie possesses Andrew both metaphorically and literally. Woven into the murder mystery and the Southern Gothic tropes is the question of how to break toxic patterns and how to let go of the people who are damaging you, even when they’ve molded you to never leave, and even when you love them fiercely. It is heartbreaking, and it is neither simple nor easy.

Summer Sons explores all of this in glinting prose and stunning character-building. Grief, love, desire, trauma, the gritty and grotesque realities of life and of the past, and the wrenching feeling of falling free — this book has it all.

‘What,’ Riley started, and Sam covered his mouth. Andrew made a beeline for the porch door. Breath stuttering in choppy bursts, he sat down hard against the exterior. The sob that wracked him, sudden and brutal, wasn’t a surprise. He gripped the back of his skull with both hands, knees pressed to his eyes, and cried. Throughout, he was aware of them inside the house, close and ready if he were to call out. For a moment, he hadn’t felt alone.”

— Summer Sons

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