Recipe for a Wrenching Novel: Comic Delivery, Somber Content

The Summer Guest , by Justin Cronin. The Dial Press, 369 pages, $24.

The Summer Guest is a melodrama, and I mean that in the most neutral, definitional sense. This second novel by Justin Cronin (his first, Mary and O’Neil , won the 2002 P.E.N./Hemingway Award) teems with big events-birth, death, illness, a harrowing escape-and Mr. Cronin delivers these up in unflinching scenes that last well past the point where we might expect him to tap a resonant note and sidle nimbly away. Even more intriguingly, The Summer Guest contains not one instant of the postmodern high jinks so popular among writers of Mr. Cronin’s generation, especially its male contingent. I’m making the book sound old-fashioned, but Mr. Cronin’s irony-free approach to dramatic event actually feels fresh, unburdened by the need to account for, and comment upon, its own existence, or to establish a separate, winking allegiance with the reader.

That being said, The Summer Guest is old-fashioned in other ways. Mr. Cronin employs a classic structure: A character’s immanent death unifies other characters around him, and this heightened state of affairs peels away layers of their separate histories to reveal hidden connections among them. In this case, the year is 1994 and the almost-deceased is Harry Wainwright, a discount-drugstore mogul whose dying wish is to make a last visit to the rustic Maine fishing camp where he has vacationed for more than 30 summers. Awaiting his arrival are the camp’s longtime owner, Joe, whose father founded the camp after being wounded in World War II; Joe’s wife, Lucy, who’s had a romantic involvement with Harry over the years; Joe and Lucy’s daughter, Kate, a college student; and the club’s manager and guide, Jordan, an elusive underachiever who hopes to marry Kate. All of these characters narrate sections of the book, and the world they collectively inhabit is fraught with old-fashioned hazards: Babies are stillborn or sicken and die; adult life spans are perilously brief, well below the national average.

Oddly enough, Mr. Cronin is a comic writer. Line by line, The Summer Guest is packed with funny stuff, like this description, by Joe, of why it pays to drive slowly in moose country: “Nearly all [the moose's] weight is suspended four feet in the air on legs skinny as pipe cleaners, so you catch one broadside, driving, let’s say, a late-model Ford Taurus, and before you can say ‘what the goddamn,’ seven hundred pounds of permanently startled moose flops right over the hood and through your windshield-what the EMTs up here call ‘a Maine lap dance.’” There are also plenty of amusing thumbnail sketches, like this one, again by Joe, of a Mafioso boat owner whose vessel he covets, “a tough-looking, squarish little man with a face like a piecrust and enough hair on his back to throw a shadow. He was wearing nothing but a Red Sox cap and a pair of aquamarine bikini briefs, and when I introduced myself and told him I was there to see the boat, he didn’t offer me his hand to shake but simply grunted ….

“‘Felicity,’ I said, reading the name off the transom.

“‘Means “pussy” in Latin,’ he said.”

Mr. Cronin’s comic sensibility might seem an awkward conduit for the events of The Summer Guest , many of which fall on the spectrum somewhere between somber and tragic. (I have a yen to see what would happen if, in some future novel, he let his comic gifts rampage.) But Mr. Cronin more often than not makes the unlikely fusion of comic delivery and tragic content succeed-his playful eye is partly what keeps the melodrama of The Summer Guest from feeling, well, melodramatic. In a chapter narrated by Harry, Mr. Cronin describes his dawning awareness, after the birth of his second son, that his wife is profoundly ill: “[A]s Hal grew, the inkling that something was seriously wrong with Meredith grew beside him, like a dark flower in an adjacent pot.” Later, Meredith receives an obscure diagnosis. “If we had never heard of it, how bad could it be?” Mr. Cronin writes. “Though of course the opposite was true: we’d never heard of it because it was rare, infinitesimally rare, and nothing you would want to know about if you didn’t have to, like a brutal little war fought far away among people whose names you couldn’t pronounce.”

The triumph of The Summer Guest lies in the sheer aliveness of Mr. Cronin’s language, which allows him to render up moments of devastating sadness with buoyant restraint. Here Harry recalls the illness and death of his infant first son, Sam: “[W]hen I remember that time, it’s not the frantic nighttime dashes to the hospital I think of, or even the long, white hours of the hospital, but odd, unrelated moments when I found myself alone. Dusting off the car in the driveway after a sudden snowfall, in case Sam needed to go to the doctor; standing by the electric doors of the emergency room to wait for news and watching a haze of spring rain floating through the lighted cones of the street lamps; sitting in the kitchen of my quiet house on a morning in July-a morning when our baby was actually home and well-and feeling, for the first time, that Sam would truly die.”

Mr. Cronin is less adept at capturing the rhythms and cadences of individual voices. When I opened The Summer Guest at random and started to read, I found it nearly impossible to tell which character was speaking. All of them tend to use phrases like “fit as a fiddle” and “right as rain,” a folksiness that meshes uneasily at times with their sophisticated wit. What distinguishes the characters from each other is the experiences they recount, and in the case of Joe and Lucy-and Harry most of all-these experiences are deeply involving. Only Jordan, the club manager and guide whose life is comparatively short on event, remains cypherlike despite the many pages we spend inside his head. On the most literal level, Jordan’s blurred impression raises obvious questions about what exactly has made him the object of Harry’s love and Kate’s desire. But as Jordan’s pivotal position in the book’s design is revealed, his indeterminacy as a character becomes a bigger problem: As heir to the fishing camp and Kate’s future husband, Jordan personifies the next generation in a novel that is, finally, a story of generational duty and love. Some of the cumulative power of The Summer Guest dissipates through Jordan, but plenty still remains to make this a wrenching, often harrowing read about people whose problems come from outside themselves rather than within.

Jennifer Egan is at work on her third novel.