This article originally appeared in Asia Times.
“I hear America singing,” Walt Whitman famously wrote in his hymn to the common man. So does Bill Rivers in his rollicking, moving, and beautifully written first novel, Last Summer Boys, a story placed on the intersection of private – familial – life and public virtue in dark times.
In 1968, a city boy, 13-year-old Frankie, has arrived to spend the summer with his three cousins at their home in a Pennsylvania meadow edged by forests and slashed by a creek. Cicadas sing. Bullfrogs bellow. Summer breezes waft honeysuckle fragrance through the valley. You can smell the mown hay and see fat bumblebees floating among the wild blackberries.
The novel’s setting frames its humanity. The parents’ and sons’ affection and respect equal their wisdom. This is a family.
Youngest brother Jack thinks he can save his oldest brother, Pete, from the draft as July 4, his 18th birthday, nears and adventures begin. A midnight visit to a graveyard tests the city cousin’s courage.
The boys hunt for a long-lost fighter jet whose discovery the young brother and cousin think will exclude the older sibling from the draft when a newspaper article Frankie plans to write makes him famous.
The impossibility of local fame as a shield from the draft is a flourish that makes the young characters real. It’s an idea that only a kid could have dreamed up.
When a group of girls happens upon the boys skinny-dipping in the creek, the oldest boy has the wit and self-possession to face them and deflect an embarrassing situation. But the theme of the novel is the brothers’ love for each other bounded by a nation-dividing war.
When the possibility of being drafted and dying in Vietnam is raised, Pete tells youngest brother Jack, “So what? Would that make me love you any less? Would you love me any less? He shakes his head.… Impossible.”
Last Summer Boys’ setting in 1968 is essential: familial love and – as we eventually learn – individual patriotism offer perspective on the public sphere and suggest answers to its challenges.
Like today, the US in 1968 appeared to be coming apart. It was riven over the Vietnam War. Political assassination had taken Robert Kennedy and the novel’s middle son, Will weeps at the news.
I remember as a boy listening to the police and fire alarms five blocks away as 63rd Street burned on Chicago’s South Side after Dr Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis. Also in Chicago, protesters outside the Democratic presidential convention were set upon by police and National Guardsmen. Police killed three South Carolina University students who were protesting segregation.
Civil discord suffused the news. Faith in political and civil institutions wavered.
But the center held. Decency, self-reliance, strong communities, families, and patriotism – notwithstanding the national division over the Vietnam War – held. Americans continued giving to charitable organizations, local and national. Community groups like Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, and 4H clubs, to name a few, prospered.
Men and women joined the Peace Corps as part of the 240,000 volunteers who have served it since 1961. They built and ran small businesses or passed along family traditions and kept businesses thriving.
Popular culture – although laced by dissatisfaction over the war, middle-class existence, and talk of revolution – reflected traditional values. Aaron Copland’s spine-tingling 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man” still represented most Americans’ hope for a sunny future.
Gomer Pyle was a popular TV sitcom hit. Pyle was a sweet-hearted naïf, an utterly honest character who had joined the Marines and whose foil was an irascible gunnery sergeant. The series played off the contrast between Pyle’s small-town likability and his sergeant’s exasperation, which eventually turned to a friendship that mirrored the family warmth Pyle wanted of his platoon. Politics had nothing to do with the show or its popularity.
Bonanza, a western TV show, was nearly as popular as Gomer Pyle. More political than the latter, its center was the family and its powerful bonds.
The US also produced heroes. In 1968, age 20, Oscar Palmer Austin, son of Frank and Mildred Austin of Phoenix, enlisted in the Marines as a private first class. Near Da Nang and under enemy fire the following year, Oscar placed himself between a hostile grenade and a fellow, wounded marine.
Injured by the blast, the young man then protected his wounded buddy from enemy fire with his own body. For this he posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The house may have nearly divided but its inhabitants’ individual strengths persevered.
Last Summer Boys is wonderful storytelling. But its heart is an appeal to what’s good in us. The US survived the late 1960s and it can survive the current turmoil. Rivers drives this point home with a hammer.
After guiding a home-made raft down a swollen creek after a tornado, the youngest brother, Jack, verges on hoping that a troubled acquaintance perished in the same torrent. He is cut short by the thought of his mother’s earlier admonition about the same unhappy boy:
“Don’t you ever do anything to make somebody feel like their life is no account to you, hear? It’s the worst thing you can do to a person. It’s a kind of killing, a killing of the soul.”
Jack knows that he has treated the missing boy badly and is ashamed.
It’s the kind of shame of which today’s poisonous public sphere is devoid and which displays our moral quandary. Examples are unnecessary. Look at the Internet or a newspaper or watch cable television where guests struggle to outdo each other in vituperation, an accurate reflection of the United States’ political gulf.
Still, Last Summer Boys, tells us, there is still hope for the better angels of our nature. It’s a terrific read.
Last Summer Boys ©2022 William J Rivers III, Brilliance Publishing Inc, Grand Haven, Michigan.