`Summer Guest' offers comfort and grace

September 19, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN BOOK EDITOR

The Summer Guest, by Justin Cronin. Dial Books. 369 pages. $24.

In its enveloping quietude, there is much that is comforting in a heavy snowfall. Justin Cronin's debut novel, The Summer Guest, which itself begins in a New England snow, is gratifying in just that way, its pleasures tranquil but nonetheless profound.

The snowfall follows Joe Crosby as an infant traveling by train with his parents, a disfigured World War II veteran and his doomed wife, as they make their way to a new life in the woods of Maine, where they have bought an abandoned fishing camp.

The action of the novel skips ahead several decades, when Joe, a one-time Vietnam draft dodger, and his wife Lucy have finally sold the fishing camp after operating it all those years and raising a daughter, Kate. Though the camp has defined much of their existence, they have sold it because Harry Wainwright, an immensely wealthy, perennial summer guest who has figured prominently in both their lives, has made an offer on the place that cannot be turned down. But before they leave, Harry, who is dying, wants to come for one last visit, one more outing on the lake, during which, he hopes, he will take his last breaths.

Cross-cutting in perspective among Joe, Lucy, Harry, Kate and Jordan Patterson, a sweet-tempered fishing guide in love with Kate, Cronin backtracks through time to gradually reveal the nature of the bonds among these people, ties that are buffeted by place, timing and changing circumstance. We guess the secret long before it is fully uncovered, but this is a novel of character rather than mystery, and Cronin's chief depiction is of the human heart as a moving target.

His language is direct but evocative, and occasionally heartbreaking in the keenness of perception, as when he describes Harry finally coming fully awake to the son he has failed to embrace.

"He had grown into a fine young man, strong, and thoughtful, organized in his affairs, perhaps a little melancholy, though that was understandable: his mother was dying, his father seemed only to have just found him, like a book left carelessly on the patio, or a ring of keys he'd mislaid."

Cronin, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for his short story collection, Mary and O'Neil, is nonjudgmental as to the uncontrollable direction that love and need take. He gives us flawed characters, but characters nonetheless worthy of sympathy and admiration. Perhaps, at the end, he grants them all a magnanimousness hard to quite swallow, but by then, you've enjoyed their company enough that it's hard to deny to deny them the grace notes Cronin allots them.

There isn't one of them, you wouldn't enjoy sharing a cabin with as the snow swirls outside.

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