Innocence Over Camp in Lisa Howorth’s ‘Summerlings’
Have you ever watched Leave it to Beaver without irony? How about The Brady Bunch? For me, who grew up in the seventies and eighties, the prospect of viewing either of these shows without a serious amount of tongue in cheek was impossible. The whole point was to put oneself in a jocular, twisted, not very kind state. The show wasn’t the show. The show was what went on in your head during the show—your running commentary on the bad acting, funny clothes, goofy music, and unrealistic family strife. To think of watching them from something other than this perspective would’ve made me bored, a little sad. What might they have to offer if I put my troll hat away and accepted them as they were intended: displays of innocence that offered a kind of emotional protection from the chaos and complications of the real world?
In Summerlings, Lisa Howorth subtly asks you to unlearn your instinct for camp. The story centers on nine-year-old John, who with his friends Ivan and Max do their best to liven up the tail end of the summer in their Washington D.C. neighborhood circa 1959. These efforts include hunting the specimen of the bizarre spider infestation that season, getting invited to swim in their neighbor’s pool, and spending as much time as possible with Elena, Ivan’s lovely, mysterious aunt. “Max considered every piece [of gum] he swallowed an act of defiance and bravery.” Simple enough milieu, right? If only adult problems didn’t lie just beneath the surface. The beginning of the cold war leads some on the block to murmur that the Russians might be responsible for the spiders. The neighbors with the pool keep their distance from John’s crowd because Max is Jewish, and Elena’s late nights and beaus with questionable political affiliations raise more than a few eyebrows. As relevant to our times as Russian conspiracies and anti-semitism might be, it’s hard to hold back an eye roll with the over-concern of these folks for the “threats” of the day. In retrospect, we can afford our certainty—we know no earth-shattering kaboom happened in the country during the fifties—but the characters can’t afford theirs. World War II is still how most of them frame worldly battle lines, and John’s multicultural neighborhood has a potential boogeyman behind every picket fence. I can imagine Howorth wanting us to hold our droll thoughts at bay. Dismissiveness is the gateway drug to a jaundiced outlook. Let her lead. She has a more rewarding destination in mind.
The kids’ assumption that everyone in the neighborhood will want to come to their end-of-summer “Fabulous Family Fiesta” is almost sweet, and their heist of a poisonous arachnid from the National Museum is reminiscent of something Tom Sawyer might dream up. “’My dad saw an article in the paper about some rare scorpion things they found downtown,’” John says. “’They’re called pirate vinegaroons. There wasn’t a picture, but there might be one in yesterday’s paper.’” Imagine a kid excited to read the newspaper! With the allusion to Twain, Howorth’s purpose becomes clear. Summerlings is a nostalgic look back at a time when a boy could say, “I thought about how much I loved Ivan,” and it didn’t mean he felt “wiggly” for his friend—a term John definitely feels for Elena. Let the children have a childhood, Howorth implies, and let us remember our own through something other than paradox, double entendre, suspicion.
For some people, irony ceased to be relevant after 9/11/01. For others, after 11/9/16. In both instances, the world became too scary to take things lightly anymore, to twist them into our own misshapen creations for something as trivial as our cattiness. When I hear that millennials are upset that Friends will no longer be available for streaming on Netflix, I wonder if they have the same bug. I don’t think it’s possible for those of us of a certain age to relearn the way we watch Leave it to Beaver, nor is it important. We can, however, learn to take in the creations of others without making them into something the maker wouldn’t recognize—not for the maker’s sake but for our own. What giant monster will eat us if we took in works like Summerlings without irony? What are we afraid of?