The Devil Went Down to Ohio: Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything

Sometimes a book affects you so deeply as to render you speechless, or nearly so.  Other times, a book will fill you with so many thoughts, ideas, questions and so much inspiration that you want to shout from the highest elevation, “Read this book or else!”  Sometimes a book accomplishes both feats simultaneously.  Such a wonder is Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything, due out from St. Martin’s Press on Tuesday, July 26.

The Summer That Melted Everything

“The heat came with the devil.  It was the summer of 1984, and while the devil had been invited, the heat was not.  It should’ve been expected, though.  Heat is, after all, the devil’s name, and when’s the last time you left home without yours?”  The devil’s name is also Sal, who arrives in Breathed, Ohio in the form of a young black boy who likes dogs and yearns for ice cream.

Sal comes to Breathed at the invitation of Autopsy Bliss (simply one of the most fabulous names in all of literature!), father of two and town prosecutor.  But Fielding Bliss, Autopsy’s youngest son, encounters Sal first and invites him home:  “If looks were to be believed, he still was just a boy.  Something of my age, though from his solemn quietude, I knew he was old in the soul.  A boy whose black crayon would be the shortest in his box.”  And so begins a summer of blistering heat, rising paranoia, and childhood innocence lost.

Tiffany McDaniel spins her tale from the point of view of Fielding, who speaks as both his teenage self and as the ruined 84-year-old man he eventually becomes.  As you begin to read The Summer That Melted Everything, you wonder how he ended up so hopeless and bitter.  By the end of the book you know.

Breathed is populated with myriad characters, all deep and fully-fleshed:  the aforementioned Autopsy; Dresden Delmar, an odd, introspective girl with a prosthetic leg; Fielding’s optimistic mom, Stella, with her global interior decorating skills and her phobic fear of rain and boiling things; rancorous, foul-mouthed Aunt Fedelia, whose method of staying cool in the heat is to lick her forearms; Elohim, a cruel midget whose paranoid leadership fosters hatred throughout the town; and finally, Grand Bliss – ah, lovely Grand with the perfect moniker – Fielding’s god-like, idolized older brother, who turns out to be just as human and tragic as any of us.

The Summer That Melted Everything is that rare book that I want to revisit yearly.  It’s so incredibly meaningful and lush that you could read it many times over and each time gain something new and glorious from it.  Passage after passage are both beautiful and painful at the same time.

Tiffany McDaniel’s book isn’t a joyful one and, in fact, can be downright depressing, reminding you of all of the evil in the world and the follies of misguided men.  But the language sings and soars, and you still feel better somehow for having read it.

How many sentences, paragraphs, entire pages did I want to quote for this review, to memorialize for my own remembrances?  Countless, but I only have so much space here and too many spoilers can ruin the wide-eyed experience of a new reader’s discovery.  How many times did I cry tears inside while reading Fielding’s and Sal’s story, yet in some way it’s not a complete downer.  I came away from the book wanting to be a better person and wanting to help others to be better people too.

I don’t know how to state it more clearly:  The Summer That Melted Everything is an astonishing accomplishment for any writer, much less a debut author like Tiffany McDaniel.  Equal parts Harper Lee and Shirley Jackson, with a dash of Ron Rash thrown in, McDaniel’s novel is destined to be a modern classic.  It should be required reading for all high schoolers and/or college students for the lessons it teaches of tolerance and intolerance, and vanished innocence (though it’s most definitely NOT young adult/new adult lit), and it should mop up come literary awards season.  If not, something is even more amiss with this already screwed-up world.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

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