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On Sale: June 29, 2004
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Synopsis

Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for his radiant novel in stories, Mary and O’Neil, Justin Cronin has already been hailed as a writer of astonishing gifts. Now Cronin’s new novel, The Summer Guest, fulfills that promise—and more. With a rare combination of emotional insight, narrative power, and lyrical grace, Cronin transforms the simple story of a dying man’s last wish into a rich tapestry of family love.

On an evening in late summer, the great financier Harry Wainwright, nearing the end of his life, arrives at a rustic fishing camp in a remote area of Maine. He comes bearing two things: his wish for a day of fishing in a place that has brought him solace for thirty years, and an astonishing bequest that will forever change the lives of those around him.

From the battlefields of Italy to the turbulence of the Vietnam era, to the private battles of love and family, The Summer Guest reveals the full history of this final pilgrimage and its meaning for four people: Jordan Patterson, the haunted young man who will guide Harry on his last voyage out; the camp’s owner Joe Crosby, a Vietnam draft evader who has spent a lifetime “trying to learn what it means to be brave”; Joe’s wife, Lucy, the woman Harry has loved for three decades; and Joe and Lucy’s daughter Kate—the spirited young woman who holds the key to the last unopened door to the past.


As their stories unfold, secrets are revealed, courage is tested, and the bonds of love are strengthened. And always center stage is the place itself—a magical, forgotten corner of New England where the longings of the human heart are mirrored in the wild beauty of the landscape.

Intimate, powerful, and profound, The Summer Guest reveals Justin Cronin as a storyteller of unique and marvelous talent. It is a book to treasure.

Excerpt

one

Jordan

Everybody has a story, so here is mine--the story of me and Kate and old Harry Wainwright, and the woods and lake where all of this takes place. My
name: Jordan Heronimus Patterson Jr., son of the late Captain Jordan Heronimus Patterson Sr., USN, both of us Virginia born and bred, though now I live here, in the North Woods of Maine, where I make my living as a fishing guide. My father, a Navy pilot, loved the air, as I love what's beneath it--the sun and light and snow and mountains of this remote place, and the big trout under the water. To meet me, you might think I must be simple, or unambitious, or just plain lazy, a grown man who fishes for a living; that is, a man who plays. When I take a party out on the lake, or downriver for the last of the spawning runs, when they'll still take a streamer, the man may ask me, or the woman if there is a woman, "What else do you do?" Or, "Do you really stay up here all winter?" A question I don't hold against them, because I'm young, just thirty, and here is far from anywhere, the hardness of winter plain to see even on the sweetest summer afternoon in the twisted way the pines grow; they're asking about movies and restaurants and stores, of course, all the things they love, so it's natural to ask it: What else do I do? So I tell them about taking care of the boats and cabins, and hunting parties in the fall, which I'll do if I have to but don't really care for; and I may throw in a thing or two about college, how I didn't mind going when I was there (University of Maine at Orono, class of 1986, B.S. in economics with a minor in forestry, thank you very much); and the man will nod, or the woman, thinking: Why, here's a man of no account! And for one silent second they're me, and happy because of it, and then they'll ask me where to fish or what pattern to use on the line, and they'll catch something because of what I tell them and go home to Boston or New York or even Los Angeles, and I'll stay here as the snow piles up, something I can't explain to anyone, not even to myself.

And if I sound as if I don't like these people, that isn't at all true. The camp is far north, four hours by car from Portland and tricky to find, and the people who will make such a journey are serious about fishing. They are rich, most of them, a fact they cannot hide: one sees the evidence in their cars, their clothes, the good leather of their luggage and shoes. It's large what's between us, make no mistake, and I know that to such people I am just another body for hire, like the nanny who raises their children, the broker who sells them the stocks that make them more money, the lawyer they retain when they wish to divorce. But because they are rich enough to have these things, they are gracious to me, even respect me, for I know what they do not: where the fish are what they are likely to take. For this they rent me, body and soul, at two hundred fifty dollars a day, a hundred fifty for the half, as pure a bargain as I know about, and dirt cheap if truth be told.

There are regulars, too, people who come up here every year at the time they like best: early summer for the big mayfly hatches, or else the long dry days of August, after the blackflies have gone, the days are as crisp as a butterfly on pins, and the fish have wised up and aren't especially hungry besides--not the easiest time to catch them, but that's not why these folks are here, and not why I'm here, either. Which brings me to the last summer I saw Harry Wainwright--the Harrison P. Wainwright, he of the thirty-odd consecutive summers, the Forbes 500 and the NYSE and all the rest--who came up here at last to die.

We put on the dog for lifers like Harry Wainwright, which up here is really just a state of mind, since there's no way to be fancy. The cabins are identical, rustic and spare, each with a couple of creaky cots, a pot bellied stove and a tippy porch on the water with a view across it to the mountains. What I mean is, we're ready to see him, glad as hell to see him, because lifers like Harry are the bread and butter of a place like ours; we can't afford to advertise, and don't have a mind to anyway, having never bothered to begin with. At the time I'm speaking of, Harry was probably seventy, though until he'd gotten sick he'd aged easily, like the rich man he was. He owned a string of discount drugstores in the South and Midwest (I'd heard it said that if you bought a bottle of aspirin anywhere from Atlanta to Omaha, you probably paid Harry Wainwright for the privilege), and a lot of other things besides, a veritable empire of goods and services in which I had no stake, except for what he paid me as a guide. He hardly needed one; he'd fished this spot since Kennedy was in the White House and knew it as well as any man alive. His tips, always embarrassingly huge, were just another way of his expressing his pure happiness to be here.

Did he impress me? Who wouldn't be impressed by Harry Wainwright?

So, the story: In rolls Harry, whom we all knew was dying of cancer, late on an August afternoon in the Year of Our Lord 1994, with his second (i.e.,
younger) wife, his son and tiny granddaughter, all heaped into a big rented Suburban to haul them up from the airport in Portland with their gear: as beautiful a family as ever I've seen. The day's just tipped toward evening, the best time to arrive, and it's late enough in the season that the birches and striped maples are just beginning to turn in bright crowns of yellow and red, set against the blue, blue sky. Harry is stretched out on the second seat, his back propped against the door with pillows, like old Ramses himself; Harry Jr. (who goes by Hal) is driving; second wife Frances is in the passenger seat; January (named for the month of her birth or the month of her conception, take your pick) is tucked into her comfy car seat in the way back; the car cruises down the long drive. Everybody loves the last eight miles: when you finally arrive, it's like you've already done something, like the fun's already started.

We were expecting him, of course. The night before, we all sat down for a meeting, after Joe had taken the call from Hal, saying Harry wanted to come up, short notice he knew but was there space, and so on. We met in the dining room after supper: me, Joe's wife, Lucy, who ran the kitchen and took care of the books, and their daughter, Kate, who was a junior at Bowdoin and worked in the summers as a guide, and Joe told us what he knew--that Harry had cancer and wanted to fish. The rest, about dying, was in there, but nothing he dared say. The next afternoon Hal called us from the pay phone in town to tell us they were thirty minutes away, so when the car came down the drive, Kate and Joe and I were waiting for them.

Still, when Hall opened the old man's door, it was a shock, and for a moment I thought maybe we'd all missed something and they were bringing his body up for burial--though a man like Harry Wainwright should go to his reward in a pharaoh's robes, not the frayed khakis and tennis shoes and ratty blue sweater, all of it looking pale and loose, that he had on. The sight of a rich man dying is one to shake all your assumptions about a free market economy; here is something--life, health, a fresh set of orders for maniac cells run amok--that can't be bought. As Hal swung the door wide we all held our breaths a little, deciding how to be normal, looking at the sneakers, white as the underbellies of two freshly bagged trout. Hal gave Joe's hand and then my own a solid shake--as I said, he's a good-looking man, his hair gone prematurely silver and tied in a hipster ponytail, the skin around his eyes handsomely crinkled from squinting out over the world's warm waters at all times of year--and then said loudly, to me and everybody else, "Pop? Jordan's here to help us get you out."

Which proved tricky: the cancer, which had started in his lungs, had spread to the bones of his back. The poor guy was stiff as a cracker. Those last eight miles, as bouncy as a carnival ride, must have felt as bad as anything in his life. I scampered around to the rear passenger door; Frances climbed onto the backseat of the Suburban to hold his hands and keep him upright, and I popped open the door and let him sink into my arms. From the other side, Hal and Frances pushed his feet toward me, and as I pulled him out the old guy unfolded like a pocketknife; in a wink he was standing erect, me hugging him from behind, a little unsure if I should let him go or not. He weighed almost nothing, poor bird, although I also believed that if he fell the ground might actually shake, and it would be the worst moment of my life so far.

"Thank you, Jordan."

I looked past his ear and saw that I was supposed to hold him until Frances came around with the walker. Frances was maybe fifty, and I always thought of her as a little mannish, though in a pleasing way: she's a solid woman, her thickness like the thickness of a good book. Fixed to one of the walker's legs was a shiny chrome tank, about the size of a propane canister, with a clear plastic tube that ran to a heart-shaped mask that Frances wedged over Harry's head to ride in the folds of his neck.

"I am, as you see, much reduced, and I thank you."

This was Harry's way of speaking; he liked to use expressions like "much reduced" when he meant sick as a poisoned rat. It's easy to be dumb about the rich, but Harry Wainwright really was different from anyone else I knew. If you've read the articles, you know the story--Harry made sensational copy--a classic all-American bootstraps tale of ingenuity and elbow-grease, the hard lean years and the big idea and then the one-way rocket ride of his amazing life; point being, he was entitled to use any turn of phrase that pleased him. He also cursed a lot, though I could tell it made him happier to do than it makes most people. When Harry Wainwright called a fish "one whomping badass motherfucker," I knew it really was.

"Sure thing, Mr. Wainwright," I said. "It's great to see you again."

Silence, and I was surprised he hadn't corrected me. For eight summers the joke was always the same: I'd call him Mr. Wainwright, he'd say, for god's sake, Jordan, call me Harry, though I never, ever did. I wondered if he'd forgotten, and then if maybe he was too sick to remember who I was. But of course he'd call me Jordan. A dumb idea for certain, but still I thought it: How many Jordans could he know? My own father, who died when I was three, was the only other one I've heard of, and him I barely got to know, before his engines failed one summer night off Newport News and he crashed into the sea. (For a few bad months in college, when I'd fallen into a deep funk over nothing obvious, I went and saw the campus psychologist, an earnest young woman with a smile like something she had gone to school to learn. She got it in her bean that the fact that my father's body had never been recovered was probably the root of all my woes--not wrong, but not exactly rocket science, either. In any event, one day my bad mood lifted and never
returned.)

By this time, little January had been sprung from her car seat and was toddling around the driveway, dragging a stuffed Humpty Dumpty. I should say at this point that Hal's wife, Sally, rarely came to the camp; I'd probably laid eyes on her twice in my life, though she was some sort of Wall Street lawyer and was probably just too busy. It was nice to see a man who would actually bring his eighteen-month-old along on a last-minute jaunt to the North Woods, but I could also tell that Hal was about at the end of his patience. He scooped his little girl up onto his hip and gave us all a weary look that said, Long day, not my idea, could we please just hustle this along and get the old man indoors? He lifted an eyebrow at Kate. "Could you?"

Kate stepped up and took January from him, making cooing promises about going down to the lake to see the ducks; Hal, his hands free, moved around the walker and pulled the mask up to Harry's face.

"We've got dinner waiting for you in the dining room, Harry," Joe said. "We can take your things to your cabin for you, so you just go along and get yourself settled."

Harry said nothing; for a moment, we all just stood there, watching him haul in the air like a man with his face in a two-pound rose. It hurt like hell to see him that way; no one should have to think about breathing, which by then every one of us was.

Then, from inside the mask: "Jordan?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Goddamnit, it's Harry, Jordan."

And what else could I do? I laughed, relieved as hell. And then Kate laughed, one of my favorite sounds in all this world, and Hal, and everybody else--even little January--all of us glad for the moment to hear a joke, to let the day's minefield of a mood and this god-awful sense of death in our midst evaporate like a morning fog.

Harry looked around like we had lost our minds. "What's so funny I'd like to know?"

Hal put a thick hand on his father's shoulder. "Nobody's laughing at you, Pop."
Justin Cronin|Author Q&A

About Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin - The Summer Guest

Photo © Gasper Tringale

JUSTIN CRONIN is the author of Mary and O'Neil, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize, and The Summer Guest. Other honours for his writing include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Whiting Writer's Award. A professor of English at Rice University, he lives with his family in Houston, Texas.

Author Q&A

Justin Cronin’s Sales Conference Remarks, 4/04

Like everything I write, the most startling thing about THE SUMMER GUEST, at least to me, is that at one time it never existed, not even as an idea. There’s a pleasurable shock to this fact -- I think it’s the reason most writers do what they do -- and the only corresponding sensation I can identify is trying to imagine what my life was like before my children were born.

But of course the book did start somewhere, and -- ironically for something that took so much work to make -- it started on vacation. This was nine years ago, in the summer of 1995. My wife Leslie and I had just bought our first house, a falling-down Victorian in a sketchy neighborhood of Philadelphia, and after two months of scraping woodwork in the summer heat, we had a case of buyers remorse so bad it had begun to include not only the house but also each other. The only thing to do to save the marriage was to pack up the car and get the hell out of there; we had no idea where to go, and arbitrarily selected the lakes region in the northwest corner of the Maine.

Spontaneous vacations to unknown destinations have a way of blowing up in your face, but this time we guessed right. So much of New England is awash with tourists in the summer: here was a place that absolutely no one seemed to know about, or at least very few, and it was just spectacularly beautiful, beautiful in a way that only a *secret* can be beautiful. We rented a cabin right on one of the bigger lakes, and passed a week in a happy daze, listening to the loons and ogling the young moose that stopped by the cabin every evening to snack on the bushes under the bedroom window – a shaggy-bearded buck we named “Keeanu.”

Toward the end of our time there, we visited a sportsman’s lodge about twenty miles away. I gathered it was kind of a well known place among fly fishers, which I am. It was simply magnificent: completely remote, on the edge of an absolutely pristine lake with a view of the mountains. We spent the morning paddling around in a canoe and then had lunch in the lodge. Seated at a nearby table was an elderly man who was obviously in very poor health. He was using an oxygen tank, and had a walker. While we were waiting for our meal, he was joined by his family: a grown son, a woman who might have been an aunt or sister, and a little girl. We had seen these people earlier, out fishing on the lake. “Tell me everything,” the elderly man said to his family, and they did: each detail of their morning, how the lake had looked and where they’d gone and what the fishing was like. He was too old, too sick, to go himself, I realized; their story of the morning was the closest he could get.

They left, and we finished our meal. When our waitress came by with the check, I asked her about what we had seen.

“It’s so sad,” she said, and to my astonishment, she burst into tears. “He’s so sick. He’s been coming here for thirty years.” Then she took our money and hurried away.

A weeping waitress. An overheard conversation at a fishing lodge in Maine. I couldn’t stop thinking about them: how sad it all was, like our waitress said, but beautiful, too, the way he’d drunk in every word, how just being in this place he loved was a kind of final sustenance. I knew immediately I would never forget them.

“You should write it,” Leslie said to me as we drove away.

“Why should I write it?” I said. “It was perfect just as it was.”

She gave me ... a look.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “is it just me, or am I married to the dumbest writer in America?”

She was absolutely right. If I could only figure it out, it was the kind of thing that writers wait for years to find. Who were these beautiful people? What attraction drew them to this place? And that number: thirty years. A whole history seemed bottled in the moment, a web of history binding all these people together.

This is where the imagination takes over, and the story I made – of fathers and sons, and a long love affair, and the power of what we feel for children, and the final, unquenchable yearning for home – was meant to honor the lines of love I felt in the lodge that morning. I think I began writing it before we’d gotten to the end of the driveway. But some stories need to marinate, and this one did: in the meantime, I wrote Mary and O’Neil, a love story of another, but I think not entirely different kind, and when I returned to THE SUMMER GUEST three years ago—a little older, a little wiser, and a parent myself—I knew I was ready to write it. I don’t know if it’s perfect, almost nothing you put on the page ever is, but I hope that the readers who find it will discover something of the great, sad, perfect joy I felt that day in Maine – in the book I wrote, and in their lives.

Praise

Praise

“Justin Cronin succeeds, touchingly and tenderly, in portraying life itself as a triumph of hope over experience.”—The Boston Globe

"The bedrock realities of family and place remain constant in spite of the vicissitudes of emotions and events, and the voices of these Mainers have a lovely calm that evokes the timeless summer place. ... the novel’s recognition of human frailty and nobility rings true, as does its faithful recreation of a place outside the storms of history."—Publishers Weekly

"Luminous."—Booklist

"The Summer Guest is a jewel, the best book I've read in a long, long time.... By all means take it to the beach, but be warned that it's more than entertainment - it's a work of art. Justin Cronin has written a great American novel.... reading this novel, I couldn't help but think of Hemingway, Andre Dubus and Wallace Stegner."—Susan Balee, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Here is a gifted and assured writer whose work reveals a fine sense of place and thoughtful characters who have something worth saying.... The Summer Guest is a haunting story about the way time changes us and about what endures."—Houston Chronicle
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

From award-winning author Justin Cronin, The Summer Guest takes readers to an idyllic Maine hideaway where for decades vacationers have found solitude, tranquility, and of course superior fishing. For one of those travelers, the journey to this camp has taken on special significance; nearing the end of his life, financier Harry Wainwright has booked one last trip to this special place, whose history and gorgeous scenery are intricately woven with his own story. He has also decided to make an astonishing bequest, one that will open new chapters and close some that are decades old, transforming the lives of those who have loved this rustic fishing lodge as much as he has.

Tracing the stories of three generations, from the frontlines of war to the private battlefields of home, The Summer Guest poignantly depicts they ways in which families redefine themselves in the face life’s greatest tests. Written in the gentle, perceptive prose that earned Justin Cronin unanimous praise for his debut Mary and O’Neil, this is a book to treasure—and to share with your most treasured friends.

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Justin Cronin’s The Summer Guest. We hope they will enrich your experience of this tender, transporting novel.

The Summer Guest
A Novel
Justin Cronin
ISBN 0-385-33581-4

About the Guide

The Summer Guest
A Novel
Justin Cronin, PEN/Hemingway Award–Winning author of Mary and O’Neil

“In this remarkable and far-reaching book, where overlapping lives and loves unfold to reveal their secrets, Justin Cronin manages to make both the ordinary and extraordinary moments of life reverberate with a quiet—and magical—majesty. He is a joy to read.”
—Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle

About the Author

Born and raised in New England, Justin Cronin is the author of the novel-in-stories Mary and O’Neil, which won the 2002 PEN/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has also received a Whiting Writer’s Award, an NEA fellowship, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, and his fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including Epoch, Greensboro Review, Crescent Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine. Cronin lives with his wife and their children in Houston, Texas, where he is a professor of English at Rice University.

Also Available
Mary and O’Neil: A Novel
Delta Trade Paperback ISBN 0-385-33359-5

Critical acclaim for Mary and O’Neil:
“Justin Cronin succeeds, touchingly and tenderly, in portraying life itself as a triumph of hope over experience.”—The Boston Globe

“Offers an array of graceful and reflective stories that illuminate the painful and the ordinary in its characters’ lives.”—The New York Times Book Review

“A literary love story . . . about the fragility of good fortune and the accidental ways of finding happiness.”—USA Today



From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Guides

1. Discuss the fishing camp as a character in itself—a character that provides both comfort and treachery to its visitors. Does the camp evolve throughout the novel? What makes it so meaningful to so many?

2. The milestones of life propel the novel’s storyline. In what way do such turning points—marriage, mortality—unfold for the primary characters? What wisdom does one generation pass on to the next in The Summer Guest?

3. What is the effect of the novel’s prologue? What were your first impressions of Joe as he experienced homecoming after World War II, and how do these images carry you through the rest of the novel? Is the camp a refuge from the mainstream world, of a stark reflection of it?

4. In many ways, Harry and Joe lived parallel lives as widowers, parents, and eventually as men too physically frail to care for themselves. Compare and contrast their attitudes toward life. Did their lives intersect through fate alone?

5. How do the novel’s contemporary scenes compare with those from previous generations? Do Jordan and Kate have a simpler life than Joe and Amy had?

6. What locales are monuments to your own past? Describe some of the places that have special significance to you, and what it’s like to return to them.

7. Which storytelling point of view was most effective for you in The Summer Guest? Did gender lines affect the novel’s various voices? Are all the characters telling essentially the same story?

8. In what ways does war form a thread throughout the novel? What are your recollections or perceptions of the Vietnam conflict, and how might you have responded to the draft if Joe Junior had been your son? What does the absence of the draft mean to Jordan’s generation?

9. Several of the novel’s characters teeter on the boundaries between life and death. What seems to keep some of the characters tethered to life, while others cannot endure it? What is significant about the novel’s closing images of Bill and Joe, in light of their previous experience as survivors?

10. Discuss Joe Junior’s journey into Manhattan, a scene that occurs early on. Does he feel fulfilled at that point in his life? Would you have been able to sell such a legacy to Harry?

11. The lawyers on retreat appear to clash with their surroundings, uncomfortable with the natural world and inept at navigating its dangers. Do they in any way reflect the darker side of Joe’s home life? Or is his life a utopia?

12. Who are the novel’s most honorable characters? Where is the most genuine love found in The Summer Guest?

13. What gifts does Harry give to Jordan? What intangible gifts does Harry give to Hal?

14. What motivates Lucy to return to her old haunt and become “Alice” again at the end of the novel? What did that chapter in her young life mean to her, and what must it have been like for her to revisit it (this time in the role of daughter, under May’s wing)?

15. Are any of the novel’s primary characters spared from the pain of tragedy and loss? What coping strategies do they use?

16. The novel ends with a glimpse of the future as Kate gives birth to a daughter. What do you predict the child will discover about love and life? How do the characters pay tribute to their parents?

17. Justin Cronin’s previous book, Mary and O’Neil, also addresses the issues of coming of age, parenthood, and making peace with illness. In what ways do these concepts play out differently in The Summer Guest?


  • The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin
  • May 31, 2005
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Dial Press Trade Paperback
  • $15.00
  • 9780385335829

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