Farewell Summer

The quintessential book of summer, I think, is Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Depicting the summer of a 12-year old boy much like young Bradbury, the novel is nostalgic, lyrical, slightly fantastic. It involves the boy’s sudden awareness that he is alive, and with that awareness he sees himself in a whole new world: it is the beginning days of a boy’s self awareness, and he appreciates all of the perfect moments of his young life in exquisite purity as a result.

Fifty years after Dandelion Wine was published, Bradbury brought out a sequel: Farewell Summer. I listened to this book on my iPod recently, and though I feared I would not enjoy the sequel as much, it turned out to be very good and a worthy successor. Farewell Summer takes place during the next summer of the boy’s young life. The plot appeared to contradict that of the first novel. Instead of growing into the first shaky steps of adulthood because of his self awareness, the protagonist is determined to go to war with growing up, to stop time and the efforts of those who would bring him out of the idyllic, wild abandon of youth. His main antagonist is an old man of the community who is determined that the boy grow up and taste the bitterness of life.

Such a battle against growing up is lost before it is begun, of course. The fact that the protagonist’s younger brother is a better general in this fight is a clever sign for the protagonist of what is inevitable. And when the gaggle of pre-adolescent boys speak with disgust about girls, you know that the protagonist is going to experience his first kiss (and what that can do to a boy) in the pages of the book.

The story ends with a curious transfer of vitality from the old man to the young boy. Bradbury of all writers can be excused for introducing a hint of the supernatural in his otherwise mainstream stories, and in this case it allows him to speak delicately of “male vitality” that departs the elder man for all time and visits the younger man for the first time. You know that the protagonist has turned a corner in his development, that his world will never be the same, nor should it be. If that means his childhood is over, then it means he is embarking on a even more wondrous adulthood.

Bradbury’s writing is deceptively simple. I can see how some readers could dismiss him as a nostalgic, naive, soft-fiction writer, but only someone who reads on the surface of his stories could believe that. Bradbury takes up universal themes, and he generally does so obliquely, with a gentle hand that masks the perceptive eye and precise imagination behind it. His metaphors can be astonishingly exact (even if he sometimes puts them into the minds of characters who give you no reason to think they could come up with them themselves). Thoreau said, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” I would like to experience the world through Bradbury’s imagination, not to live in his imagined world but to see my own world through his eyes, even if only for an instant.

I am always “rediscovering” Bradbury. I’ve never been dissatisfied with his fiction, yet I never go looking for it. I’m not sure why that is, though I am delighted to know that this story cycle will be a trilogy: another novel about the protagonist and the small town of his boyhood will be coming out in the fall.

Note on the side: One peril of listening to novels is the interpretation of the reader. Because Farewell Summer dealt with mostly pre-adolescent boys, the reader chose to voice them in something just a notch or two above baby talk. I suppose this was to distinguish them from the other voices in the story. In one case, a boy’s consistent voice was done with a sort of lisp: every “s” was replaced with “th.” Perhaps you can imagine how annoying I found this to be. The reader’s voice was otherwise crisp and pleasant, but his chosen interpretation of the boys’ voices was unfortunate, at least to my ear.

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