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Review: Nick White's 'How to Survive a Summer' takes on homophobia at its worst

Published Jun. 21, 2017

Will Dillard's summer camp experience is a real horror movie.

As Nick White's debut novel, How to Survive a Summer, opens, Will is trying to avoid seeing a buzzed-about new slasher flick called Proud Flesh. His best friend describes it this way: "Think Friday the 13th meets Sleepaway Camp meets I don't know what."

Will knows what. Proud Flesh is based on a memoir written by a former counselor at Camp Levi, where Will was a camper in 1999, for its one and only summer. Forget s'mores and sing-alongs; Camp Levi's purpose was "gay conversion" — brainwashing and torturing gay teenage boys in a futile and traumatizing attempt to alter their sexuality.

The movie gives that story the usual puddle-deep, formulaic Hollywood treatment, but it also wakens memories Will has long tried to deny. He's in his 30s now, a graduate student in film studies, but the novel takes him and the reader back into the past.

Will grew up in a tiny town in the Mississippi Delta, the only child of a devout but not very successful Baptist preacher and a doting, charming mother. His father first becomes concerned about his sexuality when Will is 7 and begins dancing while singing with the choir at Second Baptist Church. Something about the way he dances makes his father angry. "You, sir, need to grow out of this curiousness," his father tells him sternly.

He doesn't, although at that point he's at a loss to understand what his father means. After Will's mother dies a few years later, his relationship with his father grows more tense.

When Will is in his mid teens and becoming clearer about his own "curiousness," Mother Maude and Father Frank show up. Maude is the younger, long-estranged sister of Will's mom. They grew up — along with a brother named Johnny, whom Maude adored — in a remote, rural part of Mississippi known as the Neck. Will's mom told him fascinating stories about the place as a refuge for women escaping bad marriages (also for bootleggers).

She had inherited the family property there, and now Maude wants Will's father to let her use it to create Camp Levi. A former briefly successful gospel singer turned freelance preacher, Maude wants to help boys like Johnny, who died of AIDS, by "converting" them to heterosexuality.

Will is signed up as one of the first five campers. They will be lectured about their sinful natures, shown photos of dead AIDS victims, assigned to write in "sin journals," forced to swim in a heavily polluted lake that leaves them with sores and rashes all over their bodies, forbidden to bathe or change their clothes, urged to turn and tattle on each other. If they err, they get locked up, one by one, in the Sweat Shack, a windowless, coffinlike "bump of a building," for hours under the broiling sun.

And then something really bad happens.

In the aftermath, someone disappears, someone goes to jail and Camp Levi is no more, but as an adult, Will's memories of those events are blurred. The movie spurs him to set off on a road trip home to Mississippi to try to recover them.

White, 32, is a Mississippi native himself, and How to Survive a Summer echoes both Southern Gothic fiction and the wry, tender humor of writers such as Eudora Welty and Allan Gurganus. It's refreshing, too, to find so many fictional Southerners who are complex characters rather than stereotypes. The novel builds suspense around not only Will's dive into the past but his reunions with people he hasn't seen for years, particularly his father.

How to Survive a Summer takes a sometimes harrowing look at the extremes of homophobia, but ultimately it's a book that arcs toward hope.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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