Young Offender

As I said yesterday, I had been wanting to reread Summer of ’42 for quite some time now, and finally decided to bite the bullet and start it yesterday.

He always intended to come back, to see the island again. But the oppertunity had never quite presented itself. This time, however, with a break in his schedule and with events moving remrkably in his favor, he had driven far up the New England coast to see if the magic still prevailed. Aboard the old ferry his Mercedes convertible earned the icy nonchalance of a half dozen craggy islanders, for very few new cars ever make that crossing. Cars that came to Packett Island are usually well into the varicose stage of their lives, and as such, they are by time and temperament unconcerned with a return trip to the mainland. “Cars come to this fuckin’ island to die.” Oscy had said that. Oscy, the big deal philosopher. And it was as true in 1970 as it had been in 1942.

He studied the faces around him, each turned to the wind, taking the breeze full face. It was apparent that none aboard remembered him. But then, he was barely fifteen that last time he forked over the twenty-five-cent fare. And in the intervening years nmuch had changed, including the twenty-five cents, which was now a dollar, and himself, which was now forty-two. How, then, could anyone remember him? The nerve.

The Mercedes moved with disinterest along what purported to be the Packett Island Coastway, for the speed limit was thirty, hardly a challenge for an exhumed LaSalle, let alone a hot Mercedes-Benz. To his left were the familiar dunes, sulking in the grass, incongruously scattered with the uncatalogued refuse and bleached timber that the sea could toss so casually across the road whenever it felt so disposed. And to his right, the sea itself, choppy and gray-green. And large. Very large indeed. One of the largest in the world.

I first read Summer of ’42 when I was either eleven or twelve; I don’t remember which; I just know that we had already moved out to the suburbs and I bought a copy off the wire racks where the Zayre’s stocked paperbacks, cover out and about four books deep. I’m not really sure why I picked it, of the scores of paperbacks from Dell and Fawcett Crest and Pocketbooks; there had to be a reason but nearly fifty years later I cannot remember. The movie was out at the time, and the cover art was from the movie, with Jennifer O’Neill standing in the sand looking out to see, and Gary Grimes seated in the sand behind her looking at her longingly; her little beach cottage was in the background along with the dunes and sea grasses. Was it because the cover depicted a beach scene, and we were beginning to spend our summer vacations including the Gulf Coast of the Florida panhandle in our annual jaunts to Alabama to visit family? The answer is lost in the mists of time, alas, but I did buy it, I did read it, and never really forgot it. It’s a lovely little book, nostalgic and sweet with a little tinge of sadness running through it; I think I also identified very strongly with Hermie, the main character (obviously, standing in for Herman Raucher; the book is supposedly semi-autobiographical). Hermie was a dreamer whose family didn’t really understand him, he had an older sister who is barely a presence at all in the book, and his fantasy life/world was just as strong as mine. He often went off into daydreams the same way I did, and he didn’t really fit with his friends, whom he enjoyed and was annoyed by in equal measure. At just fifteen, he is just starting to experience his own sexuality, and that summer of 1942 he becomes obsessed with a beautiful young woman who stays in a cottage just outside the small town on the beach. He sees her with her husband–also stunningly handsome, and they are so clearly in love, and begins to sort of watch them whenever he gets the chance. The husband goes off to the war, leaving her alone, and he contrives a way to meet her, offering to help her carry packages home when she is overburdened. He is also clumsy and awkward; saying and doing things that embarrass him, and they begin to develop a kind of weird and different little friendship. She just thinks he’s a sweet boy, but he is crazy about her, and she becomes his sexual fantasy; speeding along his awakening awareness of sex and sexuality.

The book is entirely from his point of view; so deep inside that we really don’t get to know any of the other characters in the book other than from his perspective and how he perceives them. There are parts that are actually quite funny–the scene where he buys condoms is hilarious–and the bittersweet feeling that she was his first love that he can never quite forget is the motor that drives the engine of the story forward. It’s melancholy, and Raucher was a really good writer; he captures that awkwardness of being insecure in your own skin at fifteen beautifully, and the entire tone of the book–that bittersweet melancholy for a lost love and a lost time and really, lost youth–is rendered exquisitely.

And yet…

He doesn’t know this woman at all, other than she’s quite beautiful and in their little exchanges, very kind to him, if a bit confused by his behavior. He doesn’t even know her name until the book is almost finished. (SPOILER) And when she does have sex with him in the end–after getting the shattering telegram that her beloved husband has been killed in the war and she’s been drinking, in the throes of a powerful grief–it never really made sense to me. Why would she do this? She’s in her early twenties and he’s fifteen. And despite her vulnerability in that moment, she’s the adult here…when I first read the book and saw the movie, that power differential wasn’t anything I noticed (as I said, I wrote my own story inspired by this one without a second thought about statutory rape and so forth), but now…it’s weird. And he of course has never forgotten the first woman he had sex with (they say you never forget the first) but it also doesn’t go into any of those directions, and why now has he decided to go back and see the place? There’s a lot left out, and I actually was thinking, as i read it this last time, how much I would have liked to have seen the story from her point of view.

It’s a short book and, as I said, the writing is well executed and it flows nicely. It made me start thinking about my own story and how I could possibly rewrite it now. I was able to read over the course of the afternoon (like I said, it was really short) and I did enjoy the reread…but this time it raised a lot more questions than it did to my much younger self.

But like Hermie, I also never forgot the story, so that’s something, right?

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