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Going Through A Midlife Crisis? 'Summerlong' Is No Escape

Do not read this book if you are unhappy. It will kill you.

Don't read it if you're sad. Don't read it if you're restless. Don't read it if you're in pain or lost or choked with grief. Don't read it unless your marriage is rock-solid. Don't read it if, sometimes, you wake late at night and think of just slipping away in the dark, calculating how far away you'd be before anyone knew you were gone because if you do, Summerlong will take you down with it, man. It will break you.

It is the story of a marriage disintegrating. Of youth fading. Of a single, hot summer in a small college town in Iowa and how it destroys the lives of a local real estate agent, a frustrated novelist, a floundering actor, a grieving young woman.

Don Lowry is a real estate agent deeply wounded by the Great Recession. He goes out for a walk one night and ends up getting stoned with (and falling asleep beside) a young woman named ABC who is mourning the loss of her lover and has returned to Grinnell, Iowa, to die. Don's wife, Claire, finds herself falling for Charlie, the son of a professor who has returned to the town to see to his ailing father's estate (which consists, primarily, of a house and a thousand love letters to women who were not his wife). Charlie, in turn, has the hots for ABC, and while it all might sound like farce here — like some kind of goofy, overly coincidental and inconsequential wine spritzer of a thing — let me assure you that it is not.

No, this is a story that's haunted by death and sorrow and the terrible heartbreak of growing old. It captures the panic and the desperation of turning the corner on youth. Of that instant of perfect equilibrium, where everything is just exactly right — when love and family and career have all come into exquisite balance. And then the instant after when everything you thought you've built in your life just falls to pieces. For a moment, Don and Claire have it all — the kids, the house, the stuff. And then at once they lose it all. Or begin to lose it. Or begin, finally, to realize just how long they've spent losing it. Summerlong is the Great White Midlife Crisis novel that Jonathan Franzen has tried to write (and failed) and Jonathan Lethem has tried to write (and failed) and Michael Chabon (wisely) half-avoided ever trying to write.

But Dean Bakopoulos pulls it off. His book nails the entropy of adulthood. The humor of it (blacker than any joke from the trenches because some wars are won, but aging is a fight that we all lose eventually).

With Summerlong, we are presented with a perfect suburban Midwestern tableau, complete with swimming pools and shopping malls, drunken faculty parties and trips to Trader Joe's. We're given characters whose inner lives are invested with a richness that tempers the vapidity of their external realities. They drive and jog and hike and go nowhere. The joints they smoke, the pizzas they pick up, the movies they rent for their kids all add up to nothing. For a time it seems that the only things in them that have any weight at all are the secrets they keep and the regrets they hold onto, and all of it means nothing until the slow accretion of history and causality starts building in each character so that by the time the cops arrive to deliver the foreclosure papers to Don, you can hear his confidence shatter because you know how hard he has worked to escape the poverty of his youth. You can almost taste the irony of the half-famous local Realtor (with his face on billboards all over town) losing his own house to the bank. And when, later, you see Claire, screaming at the bottom of a swimming pool, you can feel the weight of regret (and water) crushing that scream out of her.

There are some good laughs in Summerlong — painful ones, mostly, and a few honest ones that come courtesy of the aged and perpetually stoned widow, Ruth Manetti, who has passed wonderfully beyond the need for politeness. There's plenty of sex, lots of weed and some beautifully incisive observations on navigating midlife ("What kind of mother allows her children to end up wrapped in cop blankets while she skinny dips the night away? A bad mother."). The style is deliberately breezy, frothy with verdant lawns and blazing sunsets.

But don't let the sunny cover fool you, friend. There's still the mounting horror at the mess these characters are making of things. A sense that Bakopoulos has broken into your house at night and read your diary to find inspiration for Claire's regrets or Don's delusions or Charlie's most selfish desires. There's darkness inside.

And you won't be able to look away.

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