A review of Nick White’s debut novel about a Mississippi summer camp centered on gay conversion therapy.
by Brett Yates
In Nick White’s debut novel How to Survive a Summer, a Southern transplant named Will Dillard is a graduate student in film studies at a Midwestern university. “My future in academia was in question,” he admits at the start, with his dissertation having lost its direction. Meanwhile, his personal life—spent in a decrepit apartment in “one of the cheapest neighborhoods in the city”—is a fog, in which he evades potential lovers and flakes on friends, relying on film to achieve “a state of total absorption in a story that overwhelmed my own with the spectacle of beautiful people and their beautiful problems.”
Then he comes across the trailer for a new movie, “Proud Flesh,” a slasher flick in the tradition of “Friday the 13th,” set at a haunted summer camp; the twist is that, in this case, the summer camp was dedicated to conversion therapy for gay Mississippi teenagers. In the universe of the film, one of the campers was lost, left behind and assumed dead, shutting down the operation, but now stalks the abandoned campground, keen to exact vengeance for the wounds he suffered under an evangelical regime of homophobic abuse.
Will, however, knows that the summer camp in the movie was real, and that one of the campers actually was killed. He knows because he attended the camp in the year 1999 and was even involved in the death of the camper—an event his conscious brain has largely repressed. The release of “Proud Flesh” sends him reeling into the traumas and conflicts of his past: the diabetes-related passing of his beloved mother, a locally famous cook and world-class raconteur; his tense relationship with his preacher father; and, especially, the summer when, in a moment of shame, he eagerly signed up for a stay at a lakeside cabin where his homosexuality would be “cured.”
White’s novel is several things at once: a detailed reminiscence of a Bible Belt boyhood; a story of homecoming; a painful exposé of the atrocity that is conversion therapy, which remains legal in 41 states; and a postponed murder mystery, with Will’s previously frozen memory gradually unspooling the tale of the lost camper as he journeys southward, abandoning his academic duties. A serious literary novel in its thematic and conceptual complexity, How to Survive a Summer has some of the plot and pacing of a thriller, and a prose style halfway between the two. Perhaps most intriguingly, however, the book is a self-reflexive examination of the “gay novel” and “gay film” genres, pondering the validity of the gory, exploitative storytelling of “Proud Flesh” while casting doubt on some of the more polite takes on what it means to be queer in America, and only occasionally does the thoughtfulness of White’s social-aesthetic critique palpably give way to commercial fiction’s demands for action.
Before Will has even seen the movie, a lesbian campus activist, Bevy, unaware of Will’s personal connection to the subject, has recruited him on account of his cinematic expertise to speak against the film, arguing that the work—in which a “group of pretty straight people are terrorized by a damaged gay dude in the woods”—will be “incendiary” enough to lead to “rises in gay bashings, suicides, and oppressive laws.” But Will backs down at the last moment, and “Proud Flesh” soon becomes a campy cult hit among gay audiences nationwide. Certain critics laud it as a gay filmmaker’s “defense of queerness as difference”—a bold, artistic rejection of the we’re-all-the-same philosophy that, in the eyes of some, has helped erode a distinct gay culture since Obergefell v. Hodges—and contend that the killings should be regarded metaphorically.
To Will, who experienced the real events, the movie is a “violation,” but he’s at least equally annoyed by the gentle coming-of-age memoir upon which “Proud Flesh” was loosely based, to the chagrin of its author: The Summer I First Believed, an affirmative gay love story penned by a young employee at Will’s camp, according to which the counselors “Rick and Larry spent the summer battling their attraction to each other” until tragedy struck, ultimately bringing them together. Will explains that the memoir “didn’t lie exactly; it told the truth poorly,” because “Rick never experienced Lake John or the Sweat Shack firsthand. In his book, the focus was on acceptance of himself as a gay man and his secret rendezvous with Larry at night while the rest of us slept.”
By contrast, the concerns of White’s novel are expansive. Centered on Will’s struggle, it also carefully regards the confluences and bifurcations of similar stories of oppression, past and present, in Mississippi and beyond. Before a college-town screening of “Proud Flesh,” Will meets Zeus, a Puerto Rican former lesbian who, after his transition, realized that his true identity was that of a gay man. The two flirt, but when Zeus notes Will’s skittishness, he comments that gay men “are fickle beasts—once they learn I’m trans, it’s a no-go.” A mid-movie hookup goes awry, and both walk out during the film’s first act. They agree to a second date, but Will stands him up, and later, when Zeus attends another showing of “Proud Flesh” alone, Bevy’s prediction of violence comes true, though not in the way she expected: Zeus gets into a fight “with some queen who called him a tranny” and finds himself thrown into a women’s jail.
By the time Will leaves Bevy and Zeus behind for his long, dark trek into the past, he understands that his own simplified narrative of liberation—a “typical migration to a metropolitan area,” in which he’d “left a small town for the promise of a big city, where your identity could be fully expressed”—has in some sense failed to bear out its desired conclusion. In Memphis, he meets up with a group of fellow Camp Levi survivors, who want to rehabilitate the cabins and turn the property into a gay-positive summer camp for LGBTQ teens; however, in a strange twist, the deed for the land now belongs to Will’s father, whom Will, even after driving hundreds of miles to see him, finds he can’t confront.
The apparent villainy of Will’s father is complicated by Will’s recollection that, at the same time he was rejecting his gay son, he was working desperately to integrate the all-white church over which he presided, firmly convinced of the deep evil of racial segregation. The effort cost him his position at Second Baptist, but it was his shame at his son’s homosexuality (and at his own failure to prevent it from blooming) that persuaded him he didn’t deserve a second shot elsewhere. Simultaneously, Will was in the process of destroying his sole teenage friendship, which he’d formed with a girl, Suzette Jin, whose parents owned the only Chinese restaurant in their stretch of the Mississippi Delta. When Suzette revealed her attraction to him, Will was too embarrassed to tell her the truth about himself and instead cloaked his rejection within a judgmental religious disapproval of her “lust.” In White’s vision, homophobia is a universally destructive force, making victims not only of gay people, who internalize it and go on to victimize themselves and their peers, but even of their heterosexual bullies and innocent bystanders.
One of the many reasons why Will can’t let go of his time at Camp Levi, even when he tries to forget it, is that his connection to the dank, buggy Central Mississippi wilderness where its horrors took place is, in fact, twofold: the camp’s setting, a deeply rural, lawless borderland between Holmes and Attala counties, was also the birthplace of Will’s mother, who, during Will’s childhood, regaled him with colorful stories of the area’s bootleggers and prostitutes, refashioning the traumas of her own harsh upbringing as “wild fantasies” of a place she nonetheless loved. These tall tales—not “Proud Flesh” or The Summer I First Believed—are the ones that touch Will’s heart. He doesn’t love the Neck the way his mom did, but its story is now his to continue, and his quest for a resolution mirrors the novel’s internal search for a point of interchange between the lush romanticization of Southern backwardness in which Will’s mother’s joyfully Gothic yarn-spinning reveled and the necessarily forward-facing path of a gay Mississippian in the 21st century.
“I knew so many stories about the Neck, and not a one of them was completely true,” Will says. “Each one represented, instead, a single person’s attempt at truth. My own story wasn’t any different.”
Brett Yates has lived in New Orleans, Durham and San Francisco, where he works as a reporter for the Potrero View.