When Will Dillard was 15, his Preacher father caught him pleasuring himself with a candle in their Baptist Church. “He was not a violent man,” Will, the protagonist of How to Survive a Summer says, “but this — this — had been on the docket for a long time.” After beating Will until they’re both exhausted, Will’s father sends him to a backwoods gay conversion camp owned by their unqualified family in central Mississippi.
In the present-day of Nick White’s debut novel, Will is a graduate student in the Midwest, but we spend plenty of time revisiting his childhood in the rural south. Many of the most engaging stretches of the novel take place at Camp Levi, where activities include forced testimonials, the game Smear the Queer, and swimming in a lake full of sewage runoff. “We would spend the first two weeks with mother Maude and the second two with Father Drake,” Will remembers. “They wanted to emulate childhood development as they understood it. Campers would bond with the mother and then the father. It’s important, I think, to mention that neither of them held degrees in psychology. They were running the camp on instinct and prayer.”
As a grown man and aspiring academic, Will has successfully buried the trauma from his experience at Camp Levi. Like most graduate students, he’s poorly adjusted — always broke and struggling to see things through — but he seems to have largely prevailed over the wounds from growing up gay in Mississippi. But he still hasn’t shaken the memory of the death of one of his fellow campers.
Like in many good horror stories, How to Survive a Summer has a particular nightmare at its center — a camper standing in his dirty yellow shirt, his fingers around the hilt of the knife in his stomach. On everything from the particulars in the moment to the long history of hate and failure that preceded it, it’s unclear who’s to blame. Regardless, there’s a boy bleeding quickly from his gut in a desolate part of the country at night. Everybody’s culpable. One character says to Will, “You know you had just as much to do with Dale dying as anybody.”
Critics sometimes wonder what our attention does to the still-living people offered up by certain biographies — like in the podcasts Serial or S-Town. How to Survive a Summer offers a fictional example of someone’s personal history being cracked open by popular culture. At the center of this novel is a slasher movie called Proud Flesh — reinterpreted from a sensationalized memoir by one of Will’s fellow campers, about Will’s actual Camp Levi experience. The movie, which comes out years after the camp shuts down and Will is in graduate school, forces Will to re-examine the scars from his past, but it also captures the variety of ways a story can be shaped, exploited, or re-appropriated as it’s told. About a gay man in the woods who murders young campers, Proud Flesh is initially received with disdain and protest from the queer community. But that outrage turns to amusement and a cult following. Queer groups flock to it. Gay clubs throw viewing parties.
White’s debut, in the spirit of the lush and multi-tiered storytelling of a writer like Alice Munro, and the Southern decay of William Faulkner, also has all the schlock of a B-horror movie. Having the past reopened is complicated for Will, and in a true Southern fashion, the pathways of blame are long and twisted and trauma stretches back generations. Before Will even suspected he was gay, he was already tangled in a family history of persecution and violence; there’s no escape, even as an aspiring academic in the north. “My God. It’s like I can never leave,” Will shouts in one scene, “Like I will always be stuck at camp, praying and hoping and striving for God to take away my abiding love to suck cock!”
Similar to Will, White grew up in rural Mississippi and his childhood also revolved around church, gossip, and family get-togethers. Unlike Will, White didn’t come out until later in life and he says that this book began with asking himself the question of what could have happened if he had done it as a teenager. Being gay was a sin. White says it wasn’t a stretch for him to imagine he might have undergone “rehabilitation.”
“I didn’t need a bargain to get me to attend,” Will says, “I wanted the camp as much as [my father] did. Maybe more. Mother Maude’s promises that I could be changed had awakened a little hope in me, too.” Promises of conversion and salvation might feel compelling for a guy like Will in the rural south. Like many places, Mississippi has an unsettling past and present, but here the awareness of that doesn’t help the enlightened do much better.