CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATIONS

Song for a Summer Night is a work of fiction, and any similarities between its characters and real persons, either living or not living, is purely unintentional.


TO THE CRITICS (DECEMBER 2008)
Because this story begins in a way to remind one of The Wind in the Willows, some will read it expecting it to be The Wind in the Willows. I fear now, as I have all along, that those who liked that book -- or any of the many books like it -- will not like Song for a Summer Night due to misplaced expectations. The Wind in the Willows is a magnificent exercise in imagery and "what if". What is critical, and what is easy in that story, is that we, as readers, must suspend disbelief in order to become a part of it. Most who revisit Grahame's masterpiece do so for its superficial appeal to their childhood sensibilities. Song goes further than that. Camaraderie and esprit de corps make for splendid book topics, especially in children’s literature, but these are not what Song for a Summer Night is about. Organic harmony like that found in many classic fairy tales does not lend itself well to a dystopian allegory. A fairer comparison, should one be necessary, might be to Pan's Labyrinth, or, due to the plot involving a child finding their way home, The Wizard of Oz.

First off, Song is about a boy and his alcoholic mother, and their dysfunctional relationship. This grounds it firmly in reality. It’s easy for the hasty, or superficial reader to confuse Song for a story about a boy and a talking magicada in a magical realm, (a magicada is a real species of insect, by the way, no need for quotation marks), and to consider bugaboos and alcoholism subplots. The overuse of subtlety on my part, as well as humor, may be the major cause of such misinterpretations, since I could never hope to explain myself to every potential reader, particularly the average or below average readers, and in popular writing one shouldn’t need to. The story reads as if it should be a happy tale, but refuses to leave the reader happy. That was my intent. I realized when I wrote this book that it might not find popular appeal, that many would put it down when they were done and react as if they'd pulled back the blanket and seen an ugly baby. I do, however, expect more from “professional” readers.

Peter Phye is Ulysses, driven and lured and otherwise alienated from his home as an exile by factors bigger than him and outside his control: his mother, for instance, and boredom, and the Siren’s call of addiction to alcohol. His mother’s reconciliation, which may only be brief, is the way it is with her sort. If sudden clarity on her part seems too unrealistic, then you haven’t known a person like her, which may itself be upsetting to some readers: Mothers with critical flaws are taboo in American literature. She has a “bugaboo”, which equals Peter’s recognition of her problem as his problem in his own terms. She is prone, through her alcoholic binges, to bouts of apocalypse and genesis. This makes her Tim Finnegan, running in anti-parallel to the Brigadoonish life cycle of the magicada, or the birds' Christianesque Forever. No one in their reviews has yet pointed out, as they should have, that she is not mentioned in the final chapter.

Secondly, the “magical realm” in Song is not full of Robin Hoods and Oliver Cromwells and the troubled young philosopher kings coming of age as they rise against tyranny, all in a classic, stereotypical (or shall we say recognizable) fashion, a fashion every bit as stereotypical then as now. Peter and Dillon are the most tangible characters in the story because I make clear what they alone each want: To go home. There are no toads addicted to speed in Song. Just birds. Song’s characters are real in the contemporary sense, as seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy.

In the case of this story, which parallels the journey of Ulysses, I needed a sea, and so the meadow with its white caps; I needed a Cyclops, and so Pixie Anderson; I needed a bag of wind, and so I created Herr Placido, a blustery singer; I needed an underworld figure, and so I created Rocco Colossimo, the gangster in the graveyard; I needed Proteus, and so the episode where Peter looks into his microscope; I needed Laestrygonians, and so the episode with the mosquitoes; I needed Peter to confront Scylla, and so pitted him against the cat, Boog, and then Chaybdis, hence, Mrs. Barrow’s toilet seat, with swirling waters beneath, upon which Peter sits while she applies her caustic remedies to his scratches; rather than Stephen Dedalus performing aeronautical feats, I have Icarus. The book is a puzzle, and I had hoped some would get it.

The animals in this story are not cute and cuddly, and weren’t meant to be. They think the way people might and each represents a particular sort of person. These ancillary characters of mine represent something more than their stereotypes, however; they’re necessary pieces in a puzzle I assembled exploiting their stereotypes. The question isn’t one of transparent characters being there and my being a hackneyed writer for resorting to them, but rather why are they there in the first place? They are the destinations Peter must encounter on his way home.

This is a dark story with an ambivalent ending, where good friends must part and say good-bye forever. The animals in Song are overwhelmed with the sudden awareness of the futility of their lives, but they actually represent Peter’s state of mind. The silent woodland is meant to represent the contemplative state into which Peter suddenly finds himself enveloped as he approaches adolescence. There are incongruities and absurdities becoming apparent to him now. The magic in this story, only ever implied, is not bestowed from a fairy to a boy, but from a boy to a fairy, and to all the other creatures with whom he may wish to converse. The magic I speak of is that of a fertile imagination and a philosopher’s sense of wonder.

This is a book about lazy summer days and nights. It meanders in no particular hurry, as did the boy I watched who inspired me one steamy day in August, talking to his friend, the bug, on the back of his hand, and finding things for his pockets all along the way. It’s about a boy and his moral dilemmas, big and small, where plot takes a back seat to ideas. As with Alice in Alice in Wonderland, another book to which Song is compared (and whose plot is argueably incoherent), readers should identify with Peter, if not his philosophical waxings. And, as in Song, the supporting characters in Alice in Wonderland (and Oz) are readily identifiable because their stereotypes serve as metaphors, or abstractions. Are young adults ready for a literary puzzle? That is a chance I'm taking, especially if today's adults don't care to bother sifting through a plot full of symbolism. When you're looking for The Wind in the Willows you'll likely be disappointed with Ulysses. I will always remain wary of the voracious reader because they’re usually not deep readers (as I have said elsewhere on this site), and they can be a scourge when they’re voluble and eloquent and write reviews.

I find those that are laid back and contemplative favor Song more than those who are quick to get to the point, and that’s okay. They should just read the book twice, but I know they never will. I have, however, loaded this story heavily beneath the surface, and feel justified in saying that it can only be fairly judged by those capable of understanding it. Ulysses would seem a good bit of nonsense to anyone unprepared for what they were getting into when they picked it up. One needs to have at least familiarized themself with Homer first. I say it's the same with Song. And so for now I’ll say this, as well: I generally don’t like critics, unless they praise or refute my work on its proper worth. I don't like cardboard reviews of any flavor.


Song for a Summer Night
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song for a summer night





song for a summer night