Summer Sons is a howl in the dark. It’s southern, but in the way you only notice near dusk, when blue lightning bugs come out and dance in tandem. It’s got pollen in its throat, sweat in its eyes, and a trucker hat on backwards. Summer Sons rips itself out of Appalachian places—Tennessee lowlands, Georgia high country, Kentucky caves—and offers its men up on a platter, daring you to taste.
Written by Kentucky resident Lee Mandelo, the book takes place at Vanderbilt University, a very well-to-do school in Nashville, Tennessee that’s got enough prestige and culture to impress rich parents who don’t want to send their kids past the Mason-Dixon. In this privileged setting, a young man, Eddie Fulton, has been found dead in the woods. The police have ruled it a suicide, but Andrew Blur—Eddie’s best friend and foster brother—knows that there’s more to it than that.
After all, Andrew and Eddie are cursed. Revealed in bits and pieces throughout the book, when the two boys were kids they were trapped for days in a cave. While there, their bleeding injuries awakened a magical ghoul that has haunted them their entire lives. Andrew has tried to run from his revenant, but Eddie embraced it, trying to figure out what it wanted and how to control it.
While the two men might have haunted blood, Andrew is sure that his foster brother wouldn’t commit suicide. Despite warnings from his family and friends to drop it, Andrew undertakes an investigation to figure out what really happened to Eddie. From the nosy thesis supervisor to the rough-and-tumble townies, Andrew finds himself caught up in the relationships that Eddie left behind. None of this is made easier by the fact that Andrew’s curse seems to have come back with a vengeance, taking the guise of a skeletal, rotting revenant that feels, in some eerie way, like Eddie.
As the mystery unfolds, so do details of Andrew and Eddie’s relationship. While they did grow up together, first as friends, and then as foster siblings after Eddie’s parents died, there was always a tension between them, a kind of casual intimacy that might have developed into something more. Andrew tries to push down his more complicated feelings as he begins to unspool the mystery surrounding Eddie’s death. While they were never physically intimate, everyone in Eddie’s old circle seems to think that Andrew was Eddie’s boyfriend. And Andrew refuses to think about what their relationship could have been. In the middle of this southern setting, a gripping coming-out story reveals itself as Andrew comes to terms with his relationship, or lack of a relationship, with his dead best friend.
It feels unfair to compare Summer Sons to another book, but this novel is the meaner, adult version of the heat wave of southern boyhood brought on by the Raven Cycle. (Although considering Mandelo’s four-part series on Stiefvater’s seminal tetralogy, maybe this comparison is earned.) What so many fans latched onto in that series—the smoky sense of identity that swirls around queers in the rural south, the stickiness of growing up with and without privilege, the magic of low hollers and unknown woods—is given its full herald in Summer Sons. Relying on some very slant Appalachian folklore, this book is a thoroughly modern novel, keeping pace with contemporary work and leaving behind the old stories of Silver John and murder ballads. The book muses on dark academia, but focuses on the living that happens outside of the classroom. There’s street racing and half-attempted threesomes, murder, and ghosts. The prose is centered around grisly details, and these are the parts that stand out beyond any others—those moments when the undead revenant comes to collect.
There is also a grief fantasy at work here. Death by suicide is often difficult to conceptualize, and fighting to find “the truth” of a tragedy is a universal desire. All around Andrew, people attempt to convince him that his friend did take his own life. Andrew, by way of supernatural revenant, knows things that nobody else knows. He gets to play out the fantasy of finding Eddie’s truth among the clues left behind. So often in the real world people are left to struggle on their own, without any explanations. Andrew becomes a vessel through which the audience can fantasize about closure and grief, where the audience can experience a catharsis through simply knowing what happened to a loved one before they died.
While Andrew struggles with his suspicions surrounding Eddie’s official manner of death, he also, very simply, struggles with what was lost. The complicated feelings he has about what did or didn’t happen between himself and his best friend/foster brother are exceptionally poignant moments within Summer Sons. This mourning keeps us grounded in the plot, even amid the leisurely first half of the book. All we can feel is bad for Andrew. All we can do is sympathize.
But, the plot continues. While Andrew obsesses over his relationship to Eddie, he has to rely on his inherited roommate Riley—and Riley’s cousin Sam Halse—to help him figure out just how deep Eddie was in the shit. It’s Andrew’s friendship with Sam, the kind of southern man you love to hate, that becomes the pulsing, bloody heartbeat of this book.
Sam Halse is every boy I knew in my small, rural, southern high school. The kind with tattoos and a bad attitude, who nobody fucked with, but whom everyone got fucked up with. The boy who comes late to his own party, half a forty already down. He’s the boy who soups up his car but lives without air conditioning, installs custom lights, and learns about racing the old-fashioned way—by outdriving cops in the night, turning off his headlights to careen down winding southern roads, a rogue deer standing in between life, death, and jail time.
Maybe this is one of the reasons why I loved Summer Sons. I knew these boys. I wanted to fight these boys. I wanted to be these boys. Some of them I might have even wanted to fuck.
The exploration of masculinity in Summer Sons is almost fetishistic. Masculinity is captured and held up to the light, observed like a moth near a fire. It’s something to desire, to look away from, to aspire towards. The women in Summer Sons are side characters, meant to aid the development of the men, ignored with the swipe of a finger as Andrew screens their calls. When they do enter the scene they are as fully fleshed out as any other character, but (with one exception) they don’t cling to the page, don’t demand to be known in the way that the men do. As we press against the edges of men, they break under Mandelo’s prose, eviscerated in parts and in whole, haunted by the specters of expectation and attitudes.
Underneath this exploration of masculinity and manhood lies the haunting. The magic in this book is distant and immediate at the same time. It simply appears; it is not controlled. It is otherworldly and not easily understood. The ghost at the center of Summer Sons is born in blood and terror, and it latches itself to ribs, sticky and wet, muddy and angry.
Inside this conclave of heat and horror, a truly wonderful novel plays out. The line-writing, y’all. It’s incredible. Every paragraph is crafted: tight and wound up in the nuances of navigating a world you don’t belong to but are forced into. Andrew’s upset and awkwardness comes through in his every decision, the darkness at the edges of his vision giving him a narrow focus on a singular objective. He has to find Eddie’s killer. Whether the truth lies in Halse’s after-hours crowd Eddie hung out with or the precarious politics of academia, Andrew digs his own grave, trying to find Eddie’s.
Summer Sons is southern gothic—if, that is, Faulkner did coke off the spine of As I Lay Dying and asked himself, “how can I make it gay?” There’s an undercurrent of sex to this book that feels at home in the south—a place that sometimes gets lumped in with prudish morality, but which here instead chooses to revel in its own sweetly searing moments of desire. Contained in every touch is another that didn’t happen, every look becomes a longing glance, and each token becomes a larger part of a gift that was never given over.
This book is a slow-burning wildfire. The kind that starts leisurely in the hills and spreads high until you can’t put the book down. You have to know what happens, you have to see Andrew through his bad decisions and even worse taste in partners. It takes a while (about half the book), but the build up is worth it, deeply intentional and meant to be savored. Mandelo has crafted something truly wonderful in his explorations of men and monsters and shaped it around a haint-laden blue bottle tree. Eddie’s mysterious death is what truly grounds this book, but it’s the blood that Andrew spills into his grave that makes it a hauntingly unforgettable read.