Now that we’re shaking off the shackles of winter and stepping into the significantly more comfortable zipties of spring, it’s a good idea to read a novel that will prepare us for the sun-scorched seatbelt buckles of summer. “The Summer That Melted Everything” by Tiffany McDaniel is exactly that novel. Partly because the word summer is in the title, but also because it is, as one might suspect, set during the titular summer, and McDaniel wields her immense powers of description with the dexterity and precision of an ice cream truck driver piloting his vehicle around swarms of children that desperately want ice cream on a hot summer day but lack the money one must exchange for it, and therefore, after the ice cream truck evades their attempts to topple it, must retreat to their homes, where, if they’re lucky, there is a freezer burned bag of peas that they can lick. (This novel is hot, and it makes you feel like you’re in the heat.)
“The Summer That Melted Everything” will remind readers that have read “To Kill A Mockingbird” of “To Kill A Mockingbird” (in a good way). McDaniel’s novel is narrated by Fielding Bliss, son of Autopsy Bliss, whose name is the perfect representation of the similarities and differences between Lee’s novel and McDaniel’s. Like Lee’s Atticus Finch, Autopsy Bliss is a noble lawyer and caring family man. Unlike Atticus, Autopsy places a letter in the local newspaper inviting the devil to visit their town.
Soon, Sal shows up claiming to be the devil. He’s 13. He’s black. It’s 1984 in a small town. The townspeople believe him. Sal and Fielding become best pals, and the Blisses welcome Sal into their family. A record setting heat-wave hits town. All the ice cream melts. A pregnant woman falls down in Sal’s proximity. The town, other than the Bliss family, believes the boy to be the devil and begins conspiring to hurt him. Other bad stuff happens. Then some really bad stuff happens. The Bliss family does their best to protect Sal.
McDaniel is a poet, and this novel shows it. Sentences are often packed with more meaning than the words seem capable of containing. She’ll cut to the essence of an action or moment with a few dozen words where other writers would use a few hundred.
There’s a lot of grim business in this novel (the blurbs on the book make comparisons to Stephen King and Neil Gaiman), and reading her depiction of a summer heat wave had me in my cooling chamber dreading the onset of summer, but I would have gladly spent more time with these characters. Still, here’s hoping that, several decades from now, after McDaniel’s death, work that she wanted to remain unpublished isn’t published because of greed.