Knopf Canada, 1999
hardcover, 266 pages
First published in The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
“Time goes from the past. To the future. Past, future. Past, future.” So says Peter Larkin, an enigmatic camp councillor, as remembered by Bay Newling, the protagonist in David Macfarlane’s wonderful first novel, Summer Gone. “So the question is…how do we hold onto what’s in between? How do we make them overlap? Because if we can’t hold onto it somehow, everything’s over as soon as it begins.”
It’s a pretty big question, harbouring within it the inconsequence of any individual life measured against all of time — a question that, if the shear volume of memoir being published this year is any gauge, is currently hitting us all pretty hard.
Bay, a divorced, middle-aged magazine editor, with a whole collection of unfortunate health habits, is desperately trying to hold on to what’s in between. It’s the reason he’s attempting to bequeath to his mildly estranged teenaged son his own experiences of summer — the one and only perfect summer Bay had at camp in central Ontario, and the little bit of canoe lore he managed to pick up there. It’s the reason he has embarked, with his son, on an ill-conceived canoe trip back to that magical place. It’s also the reason he tries, over the course of a campfire-lit evening, to have one significant conversation with his son, to give him a first-person account of his past, to tell him his story, to give his life over into another’s keeping.
The bulk of the novel involves these reminisces, as Bay wanders from memory to memory, examining, explaining, sharing. The loneliness and sadness of his childhood, his distant, preoccupied parents, his longing for a real summer at a camp or cottage, the preposterous tall tales of his fantasy summers, invented for a childhood acquaintance, and his single life-altering camp experience as a young boy, are all recounted in a meandering, book-long conversation. Bay’s accounts are full of gentle humour and exquisite storytelling, and are wonderfully evocative of a 50’s and 60’s childhood. (I know. I was there!)
If this were all that Macfarlane offered us in his novel, it would still stand as a richly rewarding and thoroughly satisfying reading experience. But this is just the surface of things. Swirling around and through the account of Bay’s canoe trip with his son, is an examination of the mystery of time itself, the way in which it can stretch and warp, if you pay attention, so that an entire lifetime might be contained in a moment, the way time can sometimes seem to stand still, for an instant, an evening, or a summer, just before whatever it is that’s coming, rushes in. Summer, Bay feels, is the season which is perfectly balanced, like the forward and back push of a good paddles stroke, between past and future. (Not just any summer, but the time-honoured, endlessly repeated Ontario cottage summer, the one that stretches back, unchanged and tradition-bound, as far as memory, and which extends into the future just as far.)
Bookending Bay’s narrative is a request by an (at first) unknown individual, for information about Bay’s life, made to Bay’s son Caz some time in the future, after the actual canoe trip. The story, then, encompasses three simultaneous streams of time — the future, when the request is made, the present (the canoe trip) and the past (Bay’s account of his life.) The narrative, and thus time, is constantly turning back on itself, the past being pulled into the present, the present simultaneously past and future. Patterns, some big, some small, appear and blink out of one life, only to resurface again in another. (Look, for example, for the image of a young boy sleeping curled against a father or father-figure, or the word “inkling” sprinkled throughout the book.) Immersing oneself in the narrative is akin, one imagines, to stepping into the every-changing patterns of a computer generated fractal, or perhaps, a lava lamp. It’s ironic that the conclusion of the one truly conventionally chronological narrative in the novel catches us most by surprise, despite what, in retrospect, were flashing, neon warning signs.
Above and beyond all this, one dimly discerns (dimly because Macfarlane is a masterful manipulator and one is never truly aware of the process) a metaphysical warning emanating from the story’s centre. It comes across most directly in the concern the author expresses over the environmental damage and unfettered development that are changing the places necessary for Bay’s concept of summer, and that one can no longer assume an unbroken sequence of identical experience stretching into an infinite future. Since it’s the changeless things that are timeless, summer’s role as something that “holds it all together,” preventing our lives from being over as soon as they begin, is threatened. Lose our summer places, Macfarlane intimates, and we lose another in a rapidly diminishing array of tools with which we have given our lives meaning. More broadly still, one senses an expose of the dangers of a disposable consumer lifestyle that discards experience and abandons continuity in favour of the always new and improved fad of the moment. In the big scheme of things, without ties to some changeless anchors (perhaps family history, parent-child relationships, traditions, summer) our lives are meaningless, lost in an instant, to the rush of time.
Mesmerists, as Bay explains to his son, “take one ordinary memory, and that memory leads to another, and to another, and so on, like a game of playground tag, until something quite vivid and complete has been constructed entirely out of what once appeared to be forgetfulness.” Macfarlane, in my opinion, is one of the most talented mesmerists to join the Canadian literary scene in quite some time.