Book Review : Tiffany McDaniel - The Summer That Melted Everything (2016)
Tiffany McDaniel's debut novel The Summer That Melted Everything was published last year by St. Martin's Press, which changed both everything and nothing in the publishing landscape. It had decent success for a debut novel, but it helped McDaniel develop a devoted and enthusiastic fan base. I've received many requests to review her book since it came out, but it's not until Goodreads superstar Dan Schwent became a rabid advocate of The Summer That Melted Everything that it registered with me the book could be anything special. Fast forward a couple monts and series of email later, I've read The Summer That Melted Everything and let me tell you: it's fucking dope. Tiffany McDaniel is the real deal and you too should read her novel.
The Summer That Melted Everything is narrated by Fielding Bliss, an old man recalling the summer of 1984 in Breathed, Ohio. He was thirteen years old when his father, a prominent local lawyer, invited the devil to Breathed in the local newspaper as a symbolic gesture. The only problem is that soon after it was published, the devil came to town along with a scorching heat wave. And that does the devil looks like? A dirt poor thirteen year old African-American boy named Sal. Nobody in Breathed, including Fielding and his family, quite believes Sal is the devil, but he's no ordinary boy either. Wherever he goes, strange incidents start happening and people are growing uneasy about the self-proclaimed fallen angel living among them.
What makes The Summer That Melted Everything is that it can be read on many levels. For people who don't believe Sal is the devil, it's a powerful allegory of racial relationship in America. It's no coincidence if a young African-American boy decided to call himself the devil. He represents the "other" to a homogeneous community. A destitute figure that has no clear role among them. If you believe Sal is indeed Satan, it becomes even more interesting. The choice of embodying a thirteen year old African-American kid becomes an indictment of Judeo-Christian morality and its good versus evil dynamic and I thought THAT was really cool. Tiffany McDaniel makes a point I rarely see in other novels here: morality is malleable. If you condemn something as evil, it's because you see yourself as inherently good. And in The Summer That Melted Everything, our task is to objectively judge the characters' morals.
Now, even if you're not into the book's philosophical leanings, The Summer That Melted Everything still has a lot to offer you. Tiffany McDaniel is influenced by magic realism and southern gothic. It's poetic, allegorical and deceptively simple. There are scenes in the novel that are just a visceral pleasure to read. I'm thinking here of anything that involves Fielding's big brother Grand or the subplot featuring Sal and Otis, which was perhaps my favorite thing in the entire book. The Summer That Melted Everything works on an aesthetic level, a dramatic level and on an ethical level. There are several layers for you to unfold. I'm usually not into magic realism or anything that's influenced by it, but the way Tiffany McDaniel questions the genre's morals without ever falling in love with its aesthetics was extremely compelling to me.
Sure, there are things about The Summer That Melted Everything I liked a little less. I thought some of the names were a little too allegorical. Some of them worked beautifully. For example there's a little girl named Dresden in the book, which I really liked. But names like Grayson Elohim made the religious parallels too obvious for me. I didn't know what to make of the old Fielding Bliss passages either. But there are minor issues in what is otherwise a masterful novel. No book is ever perfect and its in their imperfections that they become memorable and The Summer That Melted Everything is very much a memorable novel. It's one of the best things I've read all year. Josie also read it and fell in love with it. We had wonderful discussions about the book. Tiffany McDaniel is a force to be reckoned with. Few authors write novels that are smart, accessible and so viscerally satisfying like she does.