Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Book Review - Summerville

On Saturday, May 3rd, H. L. Sudler, the author who lives in Washington, DC, returned to his home town of Philadelphia to do a reading from his 2014 novel Summerville, a thriller based on Sudler's newspaper serial published in the Rehoboth Beach Gazette. The serial ran in the summer for four years.

Summerville is Sudler's second book. It's in the vein of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, which takes place all in one location. Instead of an apartment building in San Francisco, Sudler sets his book at a bed-and-breakfast along the Delaware coast. Like Maupin, Sudler's book includes an assortment of characters whose lives intersect.

Sudler leans more toward soap opera twists and shocks with each chapter being only a few pages long. Sudler sometimes will end his brief chapters, which he admitted makes for better beach reading, with teases. Each brief chapter is actually rather contained. There are things, which sometimes lead into the next, but Sudler will sometimes attach a tease as the very last line.

Because the book is set at Cedar House, a fictional bed-and-breakfast in Rehoboth Beach, the two characters who are central end up being Dallas Hemingway and Jarrett Hemingway, the father and son who manage the intimate resort. Sudler gave the reading at Giovanni's Room, which is a historic book store that exclusively sells gay and lesbian materials. Sudler is himself gay and it's no surprise that these two central characters are of the same orientation.

When Sudler read, he went though excerpts involving two other of his more infamous characters: David Youngblood, a drunk and spoiled adult-brat, and Warren Cassie, a Hispanic fugitive. One is a future villain. The other is a future anti-hero. Both become involved in intense confrontations and Sudler reading for these two characters is indicative of the tenor of the book.

Sudler uses intense confrontations and more particularly moments of brutal violence as guide posts, buoys or anchors for his narrative. These anchors include murder and rape, each described in graphic and gory detail, but there's two problems. One problem is the constant teasing of these violent acts. The second problem is who takes those violent acts.

The novel is divided into five sections: Prologue, Book One, Book Two, Book Three and Epilogue. With the exception of the Epilogue, each section begins with a quote from a famous writer and a flashback to events that took place on Cinco de Mayo and soon thereafter. The rest are the events that occur at Cedar House the week before Memorial Day and running to near Labor Day or early September.

Half-way through Book One, on page 89, Sudler ends a chapter with the line, "One of them would be dead in a matter of weeks." This is not subtle foreshadowing or hinting. Sudler is straight spoiling future chapters, and he does this kind of teasing again and again. It gets annoying, but thankfully he delivers on the tease of page 89. He also delivers on the tease on page 349, "The black night with all its cruel surprises awaited him."

Yet, he doesn't deliver on the tease on page 208. He writes, "The revelation of their romance was pushed off to another day, another time: one that would ignite their lives like a house on fire." The author's note at the end of the book promises a sequel, so the revelation can occur there. Teasing it on page 208 here does nothing though but further annoy and frustrate.

There is an instance where Sudler teases a secret and then reveals it in an interesting way. It's not a violent event, but it's simply the secret of Dallas' sexual partner. Yes, Dallas has a lover whom he keeps hidden from everyone, including his son Jarrett. When Sudler does tell who that lover is, it's great, compelling and very much soap opera-ish.

However, there is an instance where Sudler teases a secret and then reveals it in a way that has no impact or punch. It's certainly lacking in the Dallas' lover reveal. It's when Warren starts to work for a man referred to as "The Voice." The actual identity of The Voice is finally told at the end. In that, his name is finally told, and, perhaps, I didn't read the book close enough, but I don't get why The Voice's name is meant to be a big deal because it ultimately didn't feel like a big deal, so I don't understand why obscuring it was important at all.

The second problem with Sudler's use of violence is that it happens upon characters who seem secondary. Dallas, Jarrett and Warren are the major characters, given that their stories are introduced first. Not that long after, supporting characters are introduced: Stephanie Newcomer, Ethan Safra and Jarvis Watson. We spend a good amount of time with these supporting characters, but not enough to have us care when the violence befalls them. It would have been better or more of an impact if the violence befell the main three.

At the reading, Sudler talked about diversity in stories and storytelling. This is probably expressed in the variety of characters and their circumstances. The goal of diversity is either united or undermined with the theme of every story being about homophobia or being about characters questioning their sexualities.

The only exception is Jarrett who is dealing with the death of his mother. He's exploring the possibility of being in an interracial relationship and he's struggling with his father's sternness and distance. I almost wish the entire book had been about Jarrett and not interrupted with all the other stories.

But, the descriptions of Rehoboth Beach, the landscape and flavors, even though some things are fictionalized, feel genuine and authentic. I used to work in the Rehoboth Beach area, and Sudler's writing seemed extremely familiar. For any one who has never been to the Delaware shore, this is a good indication of what it's like there.

Three Stars out of Five.
Archer Publishing ISBN
978-09848460-92
Running Time: 435 pages.

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