July, July

The title of this post is the same as a 2002 novel by Tim O’Brien. I saw the book recommended in some list somewhere, the cover looked nice, it wasn’t huge like the epic I read before it, so I checked it out of my super-local library.

(Yeah … list, cover, weight of book … all good reasons.)

I probably didn’t read the jacket blurb, though, because if I had, I’m not sure I would’ve chosen it.

At the thirtieth reunion of the Darton Hall College Class of 1969, ten old friends join their classmates for a summer weekend of dancing, drinking, flirting, reminiscing, and regret. The three decades since graduation have brought marriage and divorce, children and careers, hopes deferred and replaced. July, July tells the heart-rending and often-hilarious story of men and women who came into adulthood at a moment when American Ideals and innocence began to fade. These lives will ring familiar to anyone who has dreamed, worked and struggled to keep course toward a happy ending.

I mentioned to Mary Jo that I was reading it and described what it was about (not in those words):

“So,” she said, “it’s The Big Chill.”

Well, yeah, kinda. That’s the gist of it.

The setup of old friends reconnecting and showing off their life scars — marriage and divorce, children and careers, hopes deferred and replaced and all that — long predates Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 movie masterpiece, of course. Kasdan’s movie, in fact, was a loose rendition of an earlier movie, Return of the Secaucus Seven. Thirtysomething, the TV series, was said to be an homage to those films.

Long before that, Shakespeare dealt with a theme he called “the whips and scorns of time.” It’s as old as Boy Meets Girl. In these stories, Boy Meets Girl is always around.

Still, I liked this book, either in spite of or because of its well-worn themes. To add, it was a page-turner in a literary (not thriller) sense, with tight dialogue and a fair bit of recognizable humor, presented in a way (no huge paragraphs or overlong chapters, no archaic or presumptuous vocabulary) that made it easy to read. Its characters were carefully crafted, if not particularly likable, believable if not necessarily someone you’ve ever known.

I’ll occasionally earmark a page as I’m reading when a certain phrase or insight strikes me. July, July did not end up with pages and pages of abused corners. But it’s that type of storytelling — the kind that you don’t fully realize has hooked you — that, in my mind, is the best type of writing.

In this flashback, one of the Darton Hall College alums, Ellie, sits in a hospital, thinking about calling her husband Mark after her lover Harmon drowns during a weekend tryst:

… At times Ellie felt a kind of nerve sickness; the world seemed aligned against her. She would picture Harmon’s face, then Mark’s, and instantly her stomach would cramp up. She couldn’t see a way out. There was some sorrow, to be sure, but mostly she felt mistreated by circumstance. She blamed the lake and Harmon and the raucous waterfowl. A conspiracy of nature, it seemed, and there was no sense of moral participation.

Now, glancing at her wristwatch, Ellie found herself wondering if anything on earth was proof against her own foolishness. Somewhere in the building, Harmon was stretched out on a cold steel gurney, and all the fine logic and safeguards could not flush the lakes from his lungs.

Again she had the urge to call Mark. She loved him and wished she could remember why.

Like a lot of contemporary novels, if you’re looking for climax and denouement, if you’re after a nice tidy bow or even a little relief at the end of this novel, you’re going to be disappointed. There is no great payoff, no hammered-in-stone lesson, no great awakening. The absence of what amounts to an answer is the same sentiment that the great Roger Ebert had, not coincidentally, about The Big Chill.

“I thought at first that was a weakness of the movie,” Ebert wrote. “There also is the possibility that it’s the movie’s message.”


July, July is the 10th novel of the year I’ve read, which is hardly the pace of some people — I heard a woman tell a librarian early this year that she had devoured 208 books in 2018 — but, still, well on my way of reaching my 2019 resolution. I’m getting into a groove. I like having something to read late at night, contacts out, book close to my face.

(Let’s not touch on my other resolutions yet … I still have half a year.) 

On my list, though, are two books that won’t get the full-post treatment. I found them on my mom’s Kindle — the post about Mom is coming up — and they were, I imagine, exactly the type she liked to read. Thrillers, I guess you’d call them, about a military type with bad guys after him.

In the two I read, the moody protagonist shoots a few of the baddies, wonders who’s behind all his troubles, falls in legion with some hot babe, beds her, they both orgasm wildly (at the same time), and he lives another day because he has to, because another book in the series is upcoming.

I have no objection to these books (both the ones I read were believably written by ex-CIA type Barry Eisler). In fact, I enjoyed the break. I like seeing how those who write for mass audiences do their job. They are, in two words, not hard. But I’m not going to spend every night with Ben Treven or John Rain or detectives like Harry Bosch (my mom’s favorite). I feel like I kind of get the idea where they’re going.



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