The Foundation of Summer: New England Stories
One day when I went into my office at Kenyon, I got the best surprise someone who teaches can ever get—in my mailbox was a copy of a book written by a former student! Eric Lehman, who was in a class I taught at Kenyon on 17th-century literature in the early 1990’s, has made quite a name for himself as a Connecticut writer, and now he has published a book that goes beyond regional interest, even though it’s still set in the part of the country he knows best. The book is The Foundation of Summer: New England Stories.
One of the best-written and longest stories in the volume is entitled “Secrets of the Soup,” and in it Eric puts his experience as a food writer to work, creating a character so invested in gourmet cooking that when his elderly father takes him to a McDonald’s he finds the food “so full of salt I could barely choke it down” and who later realizes that “there might be more important things in life than the perfect soup, but the search for it is everything.” It’s not a surprise to anyone but the character himself that by the end of the story he is choosing a career path associated with food preparation.
I like “Last Walk on Silver Lane” for the way it evokes what is nicest about any small-town neighborhood before the opening of a highway and a chain restaurant homogenize it, making it like any other place in the U.S. that you’ve ever driven through.
The story “Delicacy” weaves together a gourmet food thread with a disappearing-neighborhood thread to make a little jewel of a story that shows what we lose when we lose not only the ability but the legal right to locate and sample local foods.
“Re-enactment” is that rarest of all stories, one that manages to show the difference between what is “real” and what is fictional and make the division visible to the reader while invisible—or just immaterial–to one of the characters. The next story, “Ten Miles from the Mainland,” also examines the difference between what is real and what can be seen or felt.
The last story in the volume, “The Space Between the Suburbs,” does a nice job of tying up some of the main themes, with its two trackers behaving as though they’re out in the wilderness racing to a goal, when the so-called “wilderness” proves thin, with patches of civilization intruding, and the goal turns out to be mostly illusory, a made-up grail object for a nice summer weekend’s quest.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable volume–and I would say that even if I hadn’t known the author when he was 19. It evokes summer, and the wild places left among the paths we walk everyday. Reading it is like a little summer vacation for adults who can’t leave their well-beaten paths from home to work and back again.