SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
When I heard that Peter Beagle had written a fantasy novel about an older couple whose lives intersect with ancient gods, set in the Puget Sound area, my expectations were very high. I was the victim of those expectations, because while Summerlong was beautiful and poetic, it failed to satisfy on several levels. To be fair, I expected too much.
This is not a review. It will contain spoilers, and I won’t be adhering to my usual rules about commenting on books. I will bring in ad hominem remarks, because this is about my personal reaction to the story, based on a limited personal history with the author. For an in depth and thoughtful review of the book you can go here.
In the early 1980s (I think it was 1983), I attended a three-week residential writing workshop, presented by Portland State University and held in Cannon Beach, Oregon. It was Clarion-style; intensive writing and critiquing workshops in the morning, with a different published SFF writer teaching each week. I jumped through hoops to get three weeks off, but I was happy to, because the teacher the third week was Peter Beagle, who was to me a god of prose.
For the workshop participants, it was good for us (but maybe also bad) that the first two weeks we had teachers who were not only outstanding writers, but great teachers too; Marta Randall and Paul Preuss. The quality of their teaching, and commitment, may have contributed to the sense of disillusionment we faced when Peter Beagle showed up because he suffered by comparison.
Beagle arrived with his new girlfriend, a rising star, poet and memoirist who taught at the college level. Looking back, I think it’s safe to say they were still in the infatuation stage of their relationship. During the workshops, Beagle let her do most of the talking. When I think back, I remember him watching her with open eyes, a little smile on his lips, as she talked, or stood up and paced back and forth in the center of the circle of desks as she acted something out from one of her works.
Each student had a one-on-one conference with each teacher. When Ed, who was a housemate of mine, reported back on his (because of course we all reported back) he said Peter sat on the couch with his woman friend, rubbing her feet the whole time they talked to Ed about his work.
This was the eighties. Public physical displays were not considered inappropriate. Maybe, though, disregarding a student to that degree was.
When a couple of us casually asked Beagle why he’d agreed to take the workshop, he answered without hesitation, “For a free week on the beach!”
This wasn’t about bringing a significant other to an all-expenses-paid week on the beach. Randall had brought the man in her life, and Preuss’s photographer spouse joined him. They weren’t in the workshops, though, and they weren’t teaching in place of the stated instructor.
What I remember best about Beagle are the stories he would tell us, occasionally in class, or at the pizza place after the sessions. He told charming, funny stories about his adventures, or about the adventures of friends. They often involved music. At the workshop’s public reading he shared a short story of his about people who began changing into “weres;” not only wolves, but were-anythings, and it was funny. Peter Beagle as a teacher was a disappointment. Peter Beagle as a performer, enacting his own life from the stage of his own life, was a delight.
Which brings me, the long way around, to Summerlong.
First of all, before I say anything else: at the sentence, paragraph and passage level, Summerlong is beautiful. It is beautifully written and beautifully visualized. Part of the pleasure (and the heightened expectation) for me was reading these descriptions of both Puget Sound and parts of Seattle. Read this book for the scene with the pod of orcas, for Abe’s birthday barbecue, and for various other set-pieces of lush, accurate and textured writing. Read it for the whimsy and the lovely dialogue.
Summerlong is ostensibly about Abe and Joanna, who live on Puget Sound. Abe is in his sixties, retired from teaching and writing a scholarly book on John Ball. Joanna is younger and is a flight attendant. They are a couple and they have been together for years, even though they don’t live together. Abe considers himself the father of Joanna’s daughter Lily in every way except biologically. Abe also brews beer, harbors a not-so-secret desire to play blues harmonica, and has an ongoing feud with the local raccoons. The lives of Abe, Joanna and Lily are turned upside down when they encounter an unusual young woman working in a diner on Abe’s island. As Abe, Joanna and Lily interact with Lioness (Ly-own-ess) they begin to realize that the ancient stories of gods are true and gods are real.
Abe is a sharp, witty, theatrical character, always on stage, always performing, even if it’s just while he’s helping Joanna make pasta sauce. Beer, musical performances, witty chatter… while I don’t often use the expression “author insert” it became impossible for me to read Abe as anything other than an insert for Peter Beagle. Abe, hamming it up on a beautiful isolated island, functioned as fantasy wish fulfillment for the author.
The clues show up early. Abe has interests; Joanna has quirks or character tics. She likes to play basketball and shoots hoops after her flights get in, before she heads home to her apartment. Even though she has had a life, a husband and an adult daughter, we know little about her. Beagle gives her one of the standard fictional wounded-woman tropes; a miscarriage in her past. Joanna protects the other flight attendants from sexual harassment; she is a union steward and she is also fast with the quips and the insights, but the story makes it clear that her purpose is to be the audience for Abe.
The story privileges Abe’s dream—to be a blues harmonica player – over Joanna’s secret wish to go sea-kayaking. Joanna’s wish is slightly more interesting to me because it carries a nugget of danger and Joanna is fearful to pursue it. That potentially makes her quest more involving. The story does get to it, and then undercuts the character of Joanna for the sake of the plot.
Summerlong’s backstory is about a goddess who has fled from her arranged marriage and is hiding on an island in the Sound, and how the lives of the humans she meets are affected. At least three genuine gods show up. While I found two of them plausible, the third is disguised as an eccentric man Joanna meets on the ferry riding to and from Abe’s island. He talks in an odd way and he wears spats. Of course, later in the story the masks come off and we see that he is something older and darker, but this never worked for me, because in his persona, he was always Abe-lite, another fast-talking, entertaining, slightly desperate old man who doesn’t quite fit in.
They are real gods, however, and there is real magic. Against that backdrop, the story gives Abe an apparently non-magical Fairy Godfather whose sole function is to facilitate Abe’s transformation into a bluesman. This takes up a good piece of this very short novel, with Abe’s mentor dispensing wisdom, and Abe’s gigs going splendidly (Beagle loves to write about music). This is in startling contrast to Joanna’s first sea-kayak voyage with her daughter. The plot requires Joanna and Lily to become helpless females so that divine intervention is needed to save them.
Near the end, we get back to the story of the gods. This is a story we know, or more accurately, it’s the sequel to the story we know. A goddess periodically flees her marriage to take refuge on the earth she loves. Her husband pines for her and eventually comes seeking her; her mother insists she honor her agreement and go back. I wasn’t sure whether the unpleasant resonances this story sets up were intentional. While they still think she is human, the mortals come to the conclusion that Lioness must be the victim of domestic violence, a valid hypothesis given what they know. By the end of the book Lioness is recast as a passionate, loving but immature woman who can’t keep her promises. She should give the man who originally raped her and held her against her will a chance because, after all, he loves her. This problem is not with Beagle’s story, it’s with the original material and plenty has been written about it. The fact that the story of Summerlong supports this view I found problematic.
I found it more problematic because the lengths Abe goes to, after he cheats on Joanna with Lioness (and Joanna cheats on him as payback), while charming, look a lot like stalking. Joanna has made it clear that she is not ready to talk to Abe, but what she wants doesn’t really matter. It’s what Abe needs that counts. So what he does, the story says, is okay… and it’s also okay because it’s so, you know, funny. It’s just so Abe.
What Summerlong does really well is create a sense of wreckage left in the wake of any human interaction with genuine gods. This is good. I think any series of Doctor Who makes that point just as well.
As much as I loved the beautiful language, and the conceits here, I had problems with how these themes played out, and underneath it all, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had stepped into Peter Beagle’s virtual reality world. This was a story about an aging man desperately reaching for relevance, for life, in the face of age, physical frailty and some failures… only that man wasn’t Abe. This was not a work of art created by a gifted artist; this was a refuge, a pretend world for that artist.
If I had never met Peter Beagle and never heard him tell a story about a friend who had a random guitar jam in some coffee house in Spain (not unlike Abe jamming with his harmonica-packin’ mentor), I would still have problems with the themes and tropes displayed here. Because of the personal aspect, I can’t not-see Abe as a stand-in for Beagle. That makes the problems look less like a failure of talent, and more like the pursuit of personal indulgence.
There is a theater term for the type of uncommitted approach Beagle took to our workshop; it’s called “phoning it in.” It feels like Beagle, to some degree, phoned it in when it came to Summerlong, too.
Since 1983, I have read and enjoyed a lot of Beagle’s work, mostly his short stories. I was a little shocked at how disappointed I was with Summerlong. As I said earlier, this is not a review or a critique; it’s a collection of personal reactions to this beautifully written work, which ultimately, for me, failed.