Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sue Kaufman: The Happy Summer Days

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Sue Kaufman's first novel, The Happy Summer Days (1959). The Detroit News proclaimed it "brilliant" at the time; I'd more accurately quip a half century later, "it's decent." Kaufman's main strength in this novel is her wry observation of social behavior among relatively affluent mid-twentieth century New Yorkers.

Almost like a comic horror story, The Happy Summer Days has a definite beginning, middle and end: city folk arrive at an island (Cape Cod?  Somewhere like Provincetown or Martha's Vinyard) for a summer away from the usual grind. Things happen with the characters, realizations come, changes occur. Some of them leave, but none as they once were. Open end of novel. Invasion of the Body Snatchers on the astral plane.

Kaufman's first book-length outing requires active engagement from the reader. It's told from multiple points of view, which causes confusion and forces one to sort out characters along the way. Each perspective is limited and unreliable, making one look at the same events from different angles. Kathy, who turns sixteen on the island, sees the adults as crazy (her parents are divorced and mostly off-stage); she refers to all of them by their last names. Two architects (Tom and George) have various issues, mirrored by a complicated and sometimes rivalrous friendship between Anne (Tom's wife) and Polly, an artist who has left behind a husband in France (will he return in time for the climax?). Throw in several other characters, and there's plenty of social conflict.

One of the more interesting things to note is that Polly and Anne seem to be the first people in their families to have attended college. Another is Kaufman's biting and often satirical descriptions of parties and conversations. Usually these still work; her poking fun at two gay dudes and a lesbian to the point of caricature is more dated, but spotlights the 1950s status quo.

The Happy Summer Days has the feel of Mad Men's first season. Kaufman matches its attention to detail, and captures a segment of American society on the slow verge of rapid social upheaval. 

Kathy, now sixteen, mulls over the older folks' existential musings: ". . . Life [was] a word they used over and over and over spelled with a capital 'l'. In fact all the supposed  adults she knew did this.   'Life is no bowl of cherries,' her own father would say sadly, peering off into some invisible distance with cloudy eyes. And 'Life is evil' was her mother's favorite phrase. 'Life's ironic,' said Mr. Duncan. 'Life can be a work of art,' Mr. Fry had lazily, happily said once. 'To me Life is work . . . or vice versa,' Mrs. Logan had confided to Mr. Duncan on the beach. And then Mrs. Russell, just a short while ago, softly saying that Life was not a conspiracy -- as though by saying what it wasn't she could avoid defining just what it really was . . ."

On the morning ritual (I can relate, though no more cigarettes):  "When he had finished his third cup of coffee and was lighting his first cigarette, Frederick felt capable of speaking."

Today's Rune: Wholeness.


Anonymous said...

Is life evil, ironic, work or art? I have no idea. Death and taxes are definitive.

jodi said...

Erik, I need to read this. P-town, and Martha's and the Cape in general, are favorite places of mine. I have this thing where I like to read tales that took place somewhere that I'm familiar with.

Charles Gramlich said...

I didn't even know this book existed. Man I'm a big weak on my literacy knowledge. Unless it's SF, fantasy or horror.

Erik Donald France said...

Thanks all for the comments! Jodi, that's cool. Charles, so many books, so little time . . .