Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 10, 2015

Summer’s Gone, by Charles Hall

Summer's Gone The blurb is right: there are only a handful of novelists who have looked at the 60s of demonstrations, civil disobedience, riots, imprisonment and change.  Why is that, I wonder?  Why haven’t our Baby Boomer major novelists tackled the dizzying world they grew up in, that shaped their identities?

From the author bio that prefaces Summer’s Gone, autobiographical elements underlie the plot of this engaging novel, and the title suits the elegiac tone.  It’s the coming-of-age story of a man whose youthful mistakes haunt his entire life.  And while the novel doesn’t quite fulfil the brief about the politics of the era, it does show how young people floundered as they came of age in the sexually permissive period that vanished with the arrival of HIV-AIDS.

Nick is a carefree young bloke in Perth when he teams up with his mate Mitch and sisters Alison and Helen to form a successful band called the Warehouse Four.  None of them are tertiary educated or campus radicalized: this was in the period when (except for very clever scholarship students) only the wealthy could go to university.    They have, however, absorbed ideas about ‘doing their own thing’ – which translates into working at dead-end, no commitment jobs; sharing inexpensive flats with rudimentary attention to décor and hygiene; premarital sex; and careless abandonment of their parents and their parents’ values.

The Vietnam War and its emerging civil disobedience campaign is so far off-stage for these four that Nick is taken by surprise when Mitch decides to take control of his future and enlist rather than wait for the uncertainty of the conscription ballot.  It’s a weakness of this book that it’s not explained how Nick the eventual draft-dodger manages to successfully evade the federal police for most of the story even though he has a number of encounters with  police across the country.   It just happens, and readers without inside knowledge may well think that Nick’s years in quite open ‘hiding’ lack credibility.  It was, in fact, a scenario that was quite possible, given that the federal police were at that time hopelessly undereducated, poorly trained, badly organised and inefficient, and state police sometimes turned a blind eye in their encounters with draft-dodgers because they shared the same objections to conscription and the Vietnam War.   (I have also heard it said that they despised the federal police for professional reasons and weren’t about to ‘do their jobs for them’.  But I prefer to ascribe more noble motivations for the incidents I know about).

Summer’s Gone doesn’t explore any of the bigger picture issues that tore families apart over Vietnam; the novel only traces the trajectory of events as they impact on Nick – and he’s politically naïve.  As many people were.  He doesn’t engage with or seem to notice any of the political anti-war, anti-conscription movements which convulsed Australian society, and he doesn’t seek support from or seem to know about the grass-roots organisations that helped draft-resisters and draft-dodgers like him to evade capture and imprisonment.   This makes him an interesting character who dispels the illusion that everyone who disapproved of the war had coherent reasons for doing so and was politically active in the campaign against it.  Nick is just a bloke who wants to be left alone to make music and love.

Mitch is a rough diamond, but he and Alison get together very quickly, while Nick’s ardour for the beautiful Helen takes much longer to quench.  As they struggle with their wholly unexpected sexual difficulties fate steps in with the needs of an old boyfriend, an imperative that can’t be refused.  Helen goes off to Melbourne to be by his hospital bedside and Mitch goes off to basic training at Puckapunyal in Victoria.  This leaves Alison and Nick together on the other side of the continent in Perth…

There are a number of betrayals in the novel, with disastrous consequences.  We know from the striking opening lines that Helen has died, an event irrevocably associated in Nick’s mind with the release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.  But looking back on events from Nick’s middle age, the story is structured in different time frames which piece together to show how maturity emerges out of loss and tragedy.  How, and why Helen dies, is not revealed till late in the story, and the guilt that sours all Nick’s relationships turns out to have been misplaced.  What he learns, too late, is that relationships are more complex than they seemed in the heady years of youth.

Summer’s Gone is a less ambitious book than Peter Walker’s recent Some Here Among Us which begins in the same era with a New Zealand setting (see my review) but IMO it offers a more coherent picture of the turbulent 1960s.  With its focus on Nick’s coming-of-age, and his simple ordinariness, Hall’s novel brings the era to life.

Author: Charles Hall
Title: Summer’s Gone
Publisher: Margaret River Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780987561541
Source: Review copy courtesy of Margaret River Press

Availability

Fishpond: Summer’s Gone

or direct from Margaret River Press


Responses

  1. […] at ANZLitLovers enjoyed the book also for its evocation of the […]


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