“Blue Summer” is the haunting coming-of-age story of Cal Shaw of Baxter, Maine. The novel opens in 1997 with Shaw incarcerated for manslaughter in Maine’s Bolduc Correctional Facility. Cal tells readers, “So I thought I’d try to write this down.”

Cover courtesy of Islandport Press

His time in prison is one of three windows in time through which he narrates his story. The middle period is set in the mid-90s. As it opens, Cal tells the readers, “We’ll start at the low point: a trailer park in Tampa, Florida.”

Throughout, the prose of Jim Nichols, a novelist who spends part of the year in Warren, is lean and spare, but the story is full-hearted. The story’s emotional center comes in the third time period, which opens on the Fourth of July 1964. “When I rolled out of my bunk and headed downstairs for breakfast we were a normal, small town family – mom, dad, three kids – with no real worries about anything,” Cal opens that section. But it ends up being the day “when everything started to go sideways.”

Cal’s father, Jack Shaw, is a former high school sports hero, a member of the town council, and a good, decent man. After the family returns from the fireworks, he goes off to play poker with his friends. When he is driving home, his car runs off the road and he is killed. His children are devastated. The death engenders a different reaction in his wife.

“My mom, Betty Flint Shaw, grew up in Palo Alto, but was pretty and smart enough to mostly overcome that handicap with her Maine neighbors,” Cal states. Betty Shaw is emotionally aloof from everyone, including her family. At the funeral when she steps up to view the body of her husband, “She looked at him a long moment, turned to come back, and I was shocked to see the hot, dark anger in her eyes. She was furious at him.”

Having never been employed before, she attempts and fails at various jobs, until Randy Pike, a local realtor, hires her. She fails there, too, but ends up catching his eye and they eventually marry. And the die of the story is cast.

Pike is a bully and a tyrant. Julie, Cal’s older sister, becomes defiant. Pike, Cal tells us, “basically declared war on my sister.”

The story weaves among the three different time periods, back and forth, in and out. The common thread is Cal’s passion for the trumpet, nurtured by his Uncle Gus – who is not actually a family member, but a war buddy of his father’s – who takes Cal in as his battles with his stepfather escalate. After high school, Cal drifts away. It is in Miami, years on, while playing a blues set at a club, that he gets a call from his brother. Alvin tells him that Gus is at Maine Med. Gus has had a stroke, is in a coma, and it doesn’t look good. Though he’d rather not, Cal knows he has to go home, a place he’s been running from forever, because it’s “where all the ghosts are.”

The title of the book, “Blue Summer,” comes from a blues piece Cal senses building in him during his dark period in Tampa. He is a struggling, recovering alcoholic, working part time as a taxi driver and playing with various blues groups. Nichols’ lyricism as an author is at its height when writing about Cal’s deeply personal process of following the spark of a new piece of music, letting the reader also sense how “Blue Summer” becomes seeded with all the tragic loss in Cal’s life.  “…I take that half step once more,” Cal writes, “and it gets darker and more settled, and the shape curves around on itself and then snakes back through, and I’m past the new part and back to the melody.”

The novel itself is crafted much like a blues piece – loose, tantalizing, taking readers in new directions, always turning back on itself. The author’s process of getting the story down is much like Cal’s working to capture a teasing and elusive musical mood. Nichols lets the story build slowly, as if it is carrying him where it wants to go. There are quarter notes and half notes scattered early that give the reader the thinnest glimpses of the tragedy of Cal’s life. It isn’t until the end, however, that the full tragedy is revealed.

The novel ends where it began, with Cal in prison. “Anyway,” Cal writes, “that’s my story, as well as I can tell it… I’ve just been going where the shape of it leads me, following the notes, playing melody, playing riffs when it’s my turn to swing, trying to follow where it wants me to go.”

“Blue Summer” is Nichols’ third novel. His first two were acclaimed; “Hull Creek” was named a runner up for the Maine Book Award for Fiction, and “Closer All the Time” took the Maine Literary Award for Fiction. “Blue Summer” is another winner. It is Nichols’ best yet.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize and  named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by Shelf Unbound. Smith can be reached via his website: frankosmithstories.com.


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