No one does the end of summer quite like the South. The prairie states may be wilting under the furnace-blast of the sun, California may actually be on fire, (It seems to burn up every year) but for the last word in late summer misery, look below the Mason-Dixon line. Here, the outdoors is a cauldron of heat and humidity sufficient to make snakes seek the comfort of air conditioning and lacquer the porch with mold. It’s impossible to sleep when the air-conditioning fails, and HVAC repairmen are worth their weight in gold (a rate reflected in their bills). But the thing is, Southerners don’t complain about the heat. In an interesting way, they relish it. It’s one of the things that makes this place so distinctive and it certainly fuels our art. The endless, draining summers stew the atmosphere of Southern literature so tragedies and harsh truths emerge. Before August ends, pick up at one or two more tales about the South and enjoy the benefits of an omnipresent, overwhelming Summer.
Always In August was one of my mother’s books and the title says it all. There’s the usual ” ‘ole Southern family” with the “ole family place” (a house that has its own name) a nice-but-overwhelmed woman who’s trying to keep her family together and a mad, bad, beautiful one who’s a slave to her own passions. The cover says it’s reminiscent of Rebecca and I suppose it is, if you can image the first Mrs. DeWinter returning to Manderly from exile instead of from the grave. The story is as dated as a Perry Como record but it captures the lush, steamy, world of the low-country (the author, Ann Head, was a long-time resident of Beaufort, South Carolina) and the oppressive feelings the heat of summer generates. Ever since this book I’ve believed (like the narrator) that disasters go hand-in-hand with August.
When Other Voices Other Rooms introduced Truman Capote to the world, a a
lot of the world ran for the hills. Yes, it’s well-written and as Southern as shrimp-and-grits, but because it was the story of a rather effeminate boy written by an openly gay man, it was considered controversial material when it was published. What OVOR is, is Southern Gothic to the nth degree. The setting is a tired, little town, isolated from the rest of the world. The decadent, closed-in atmosphere of the place steams right up off of the pages and some of the characters are down-right strange. The feeling of secrets and the possibility of meeting something grotesque or violent seems to permeate the book, like the August heat. Lyrical prose, compelling intrigue and little bit strange: what else would you expect from Truman Capote?
I doubt if many people feel bad for Winston Groom but I have some sympathy for the man. Ever since his fourth book, Forrest Gump, was adapted into a film, people forget he’s written anything else. Now I like Forrest as much as the next reader (the novel reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide) but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be As Summers Die.
ASD is set in the fictional port city of Bienville, a dead ringer for Mobile, and the central character is Willie Croft, the kind of street lawyer John Grisham celebrates. As a child of working class parents, Willie understands who holds the power in his small southern town and it isn’t him. Power is wielded by the well-settled, well-monied families and these folks don’t like to share. When one of the poorest, least-powerful people around comes to Willie for advice, our street lawyer finds himself in a no-holds-barred fight that could change the future for everyone. ASD begins and ends in the autumn but the big fight happens (of course) in August, when heat, humidity and tensions run high. Some of the outdoor scenes are so evocative, I find myself slapping imaginary bugs away while I speed through the pages. This story always makes me want to run to the coast.
By all means, go ahead and celebrate the upcoming change of season, if you want. Pull out your plaids and buy new school supplies. Every season has great things to offer. But before you take off the shorts and start raking the leaves, enjoy what you have right now. It’s August, it’s hot and it’s extreme. Kick back with a cool drink and a Southern story. It’s one of the things we do best.