Book Reviews

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to 2004 Book Shelf


The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin


Rating: (Recommended)


Click on title or picture to buy from




Justin Cronin’s new book, The Summer Guest, is the finest novel I’ve read this year. Set in a rural fishing camp in Northern Maine, Cronin alternates narration among the six central characters in the past and present to reveal the wonders of life among loving people in a special place. For one reason or another, each of the characters needed some form of redemption of restoration, and found it from the caring love of another. The lyrical language and depth of character development adds to a reader’s pleasure in entering the life of these characters. The title refers to one of the characters, Harry Wainwright, a wealthy executive who fell in love with the camp in his youth, and returned often throughout his life.

Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter Four, “Jordan,” pp. 80-87, narrated by the camp’s guide, Jordan:


           Why Harry’s weird insistence on a dry fly? The fact is, there’s a great deal of hair-splitting fussiness when it comes to fly-fishing, most of it as silly as a top hat. We’ve had folks up here who would fish only for salmon, and then only in the rivers; folks who wouldn’t spit on a smallmouth but would marry a trout if they could. There’s the old bamboo vs. graphite argument, of course, the high-tech crowd and the low-tech crowd; for every well-heeled investment banker who shows up with a custom-made graphite cannon and enough hand-tied flies to make a down payment on a condo in Vail, there’s always another (we call him “the professor,” whether or not that’s what he does, though it usually is) who fishes for “historical ac­curacy” (I kid you not), marching around the woods with a twelve-foot twig and a copy of Walton’s The Compleat Angler, which, if you haven’t read it and don’t mind the bad spelling, should come in pretty handy if you’re ever in seventeenth-century England with some free time to fish.

But if you’ve been around the sport awhile, and learned it from someone who mostly understood it as an interesting way to catch fish—in my case, my stepfather Vince, an agent for the Maine Depart­ment of Conservation—then you understand the nonsense for what it is: one more way for difficult people to be difficult. This is half the fun for them, and since my job is, more or less, to keep everybody happy, far be it from me to object. If you want to fish in period costume, I’ll be the first one to fetch your knickers at the cleaners.

Still, Harry’s insistence on fishing only dry fly had me stumped. To be sure, the dry fly/wet fly debate is the oldest aesthetic fistfight in the sport, and nearly every year some joker writes an article in one of the trades defending the “purity” of dry fly and generally insinuating that fishing with a nymph or streamer is just one step above putting a chunk of Velveeta on a diaper pin. But Harry was never one to care about such things. It’s possible to like both well enough, as Harry al­ways had, letting the fish, the water, the weather, and the time of year make his choice for him—allowing circumstances to give shape to his pleasure, always the best way to go in my view, and probably the clos­est thing I have to a philosophy of life. That Harry wanted to go trout fishing one last time, but do it all wrong, amounted to a kind of dare. Maybe all he wanted, away from the drugs and the doctors and even the cancer itself, was one last, nifty stroke of luck before the curtain came down.

Harry and his family weren’t the only guests at the camp; we were pretty close to full up, and taking a whole day off to guide him would require a little planning. After we’d gotten their gear to the cabin, Kate and I went to the office in the main lodge to sort through the list of du­ties for the next day. It was going to be a squeeze; we had two parties checking out and three new ones coming in, and half a dozen folks from the Lakeland Inn, the only hotel in town, arriving in the early A.M. for breakfast and a moose-watching canoe-float down the river, picnic lunch included. This was a regular Saturday staple for us, and a money loser at thirty-five bucks a head, but with a healthy payoff at the back end, since half the folks who took the trip fell in love with the place and returned the next year for a week at full price.

A word or two about Kate. I had known Kate for eight years, since she was thirteen and I first came to the camp, and apart from one awk­ward, early summer, there’d been no nonsense between us. You could say there was a certain logic to the idea that we might eventually take a personal interest in one another, but there were also lots of reasons not to. I got along just great with Joe and Lucy, who treated me like family, and I knew that they’d borrowed up to their necks to send her to tony old Bowdoin and had hopes for her life that probably included a bright young anesthesiologist or management consultant in Boston, not some up-country hermit like me.

But the truth was, and despite my better judgment, I’d begun to think about her differently—think about her all the time. What I mean is, I’d begun to see her not just as Joe and Lucy’s daughter but as a person in her own right, and I missed being near her, the sound of her voice and the way she tucked her hair behind her ears and the feel­ing these things gave me, like the world wasn’t such a big place after all, and I was someone in it. The last winter away from her was like a kind of cold storage, and for a couple of snowbound weeks in February, I’d even gotten it into my head to drive the Jeep down to Bowdoin, sur­prise her at her dorm, maybe whisk her off for a weekend down the coast or holed up in Boston, totally rearranging my life and, if I were lucky, hers. This, of course, was the loneliness talking, and naturally I didn’t do it; I knew she had boyfriends at Bowdoin, and I sensed I be­longed to one compartment of her life and could not easily pass into the other. What could I do? I put the idea aside like a book I knew wouldn’t end well and stayed put.

All of which guaranteed that by the time Kate returned to the camp in June, I had it something awful for her. I was so worried that she would detect my feelings (or worse, that her parents would) that I barely set foot from my cabin until the Fourth of July, leaving only to do my chores and then running like a rabbit straight back to lie on my cot and brood away the hours. I could tell Lucy was on to me; she kept asking me if I were coming down with something, and once or twice hinted that Kate was worried too. The only thing I could think to say was that maybe the winters had started to get to me. The truth was, I had decided the only proper thing to do—a funny word, but the right one—was quit at the end of the summer. But where I’d go and what I’d do, I hadn’t the faintest idea.

In the meantime, we had a day’s chores to plan, and in the cluttered office, Kate and I went over the schedule. We were pinning our hopes on a staggered arrival for the moose-canoers; if push came to shove, we could delay a group or two in the dining hall so that Kate would have time to drive back from the put-in point, five miles upstream and a forty-minute round-trip, going like a comet. We had just about put everything together when Joe came in, with Hal in tow. I wasn’t sur­prised; clearly there was a pow-wow brewing, and I had a few ques­tions myself about Harry, since I had figured out by then that any fishing we might do would be a total fabrication. Hal gave my upper arm a solid pat and asked how I was doing, but his face was creased with worry. He said hello to Kate, asked her in a chummy way how things were going down at Bowdoin (Hal was a Williams grad himself, and to look at him, probably a letterman who had banged Bowdoin heads aplenty), then let Joe show him to the old plaid sofa.

“Let’s all sit,” Joe said. “Kate, why don’t you stay too. This concerns you as much as anyone.”

We arranged our chairs in a circle, while Joe did the next, obvious thing, which was to produce a half-full bottle of very old single malt from the rolltop. He took four coffee mugs from the shelf above the desk, gave each one a hard blow to clean the dust out before pouring the Scotch, then passed the cups around. I swirled the Scotch under my nose, and it smelled just like its color: the luminous brown of old, old wood.

“Am I to take it,” Kate said, looking into her mug, “that this means something is up?”

Joe shushed her with a frown, sipped from his drink, and nodded in my direction. “Jordan, Hal here has something to tell you.”

Hal set his drink down on the table to his right and gave his knees a little slap. “Well. I guess the upshot is, my father is dying. The par­ticulars aren’t important, Jordan, but the doctors say he’s very close to the end. It makes no sense at all for him to be here, and I tried to talk him out of it, but he’s fished here thirty years and that’s what he wants to do. He was actually in the hospital until yesterday morning, when the doctor called and told us he was checking himself out. He’d pretty much decided what he wanted to do, and there’s no law saying you have to stay in the hospital if you don’t want to. Sally’s out of town, so it was all I could do to get January at the day care and hightail it up here.” Hal paused and rubbed his face, dusted with a day-old growth of silvering beard. “Frances is in a state, and I can’t blame her. But I can hardly blame my father either. It’s an awful place to die.”

“I’d feel the same,” I said, thinking: Attaboy, Harry. Hang a sign on the hospital room door, a silly picture of some old geezer bagging carp, and the words Gone fishing. “If it were up to me, I’d say let him do it.”

Hal took his Scotch from the table, seemed about to sip, then stopped. “I’m not sure, Jordan, that you know how important you are to my father. But a lot of this actually has to do with you. He needs something from you, something I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe I don’t have to, and in any case, it amounts to this: tomorrow, you need to take him out, and do what you need to do to make sure he has a good time, the last good time. If that means he catches anything, great. If not, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Make sure he’s comfort­able, and if there are any problems, come straight back here. He’s very sick, so don’t tackle anything you can’t handle.”

It’s okay, Hal,” I said. “I’m happy to do it. You don’t need to worry.”

“Like I said, just understand how sick he is. And, in case you were wondering, I don’t know what to make of this dry fly business any more than you do. I suspect it doesn’t much matter. Just getting some­thing in the water would be a pretty neat trick for him.”

I looked across the room at Kate, sitting on a folding chair by the cold woodstove, but she was watching Hal, and I couldn’t catch her eye.

“Maybe he just wants to make a few of the rules,” I said.

“Maybe that’s it,” Hal said, though I could tell he didn’t think so. “Like I said, he’s relying on you to understand some things I don’t.” Here he looked at Joe, who seemed to nod.

“I’ll do my best, Hal,” I said. “Is that it?”

“Actually, no,” Joe said. He silenced me with a raised hand. “Hang on, Jordan. There’s more. Go ahead, Hal.”

Hal leaned forward on the sofa. He looked at the tips of his fingers, then back up at me. “The other thing I have to tell you, Jordan, and this may come as some surprise, is that my father bought the camp four weeks ago. Bought it outright. And he plans to leave it to you.”

So there it was, and the first thing I thought was: mystery solved. Then: Buying the camp. Leaving it to me. In his will? Yes, in his will, in the last will and testament of one Harrison Wainwright, he of Busi­ness Week and Fortune and the Forbes 500 and all the rest, inventor of the deep-discount pharmaceutical superstore: that Harrison Wain­wright. A chain of ideas so completely unlikely, so crazy, in fact, that I couldn’t, just then, open my mouth and say a blessed word. And—a sudden intuition—I glanced up at the clock to note the time: 9:03 P.M. Sunday, August 19, 1994, at a little after nine on a fine, cold evening in the North Woods of Maine.

“So?” Joe tapped my knee with the back of his hand. “Jordan? What do you say?”

“Jesus, Joe.” I looked back at Hal. “He’s leaving it to me?”

“That’s right, Jordan. When he dies, it’s yours, free and clear. There’s a provision to protect it from inheritance taxes, which the rest of the estate will absorb. Sally drew it up, so I’d guess it’s pretty airtight, knowing Sally. And you should understand that Frances and I are okay with this. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t try to talk my father out of it, and probably we could make a case that he was pretty sick when he made this decision, not in his right mind, yada-yada-yada, and maybe make it stick. But in the end it wouldn’t be a fair fight, and it wouldn’t be the truth, either. My father may have cancer, he may even be a little eccentric, but he’s not crazy. So the way this breaks down, there’s plenty to go around, and some of it is going around to you, a nice lit­tle chunk actually, but nothing that’s worth an ugly and expensive scuffle. Understood?”

I nodded. I was actually barely following any of it. “I guess I do.”

“Incidentally, he doesn’t want you to know about this. My thinking is—and Sally and Frances both agree—it’s crazy for you not to. There are no strings attached, and you can do whatever you want with the place. But what he’s hoping is that the camp will always be here, that you can stay up here the rest of your life. He wants to take care of you, Jordan.”

I turned to Joe. “You really sold it?”

Joe shrugged, turning his mouth down in a pained half-frown. I thought he might be about to cry, and who could blame him? Even if Harry had given him one zillion dollars for the place, the camp had been in Joe’s family for almost fifty years. My eyes moved upward to the wall behind his head, covered with old photos, including a faded black-and-white of Joe himself, just a kid of six or seven with one front tooth missing and a haircut that looked like it had been done with pinking shears, holding up an Atlantic salmon just about as big as he was and beaming like a maniac. Joe Sr., the old man himself, stood be­side his boy, one hand over his brow, the other, big as a catcher’s mitt, tousling little Joe’s hair. The photo was taken on the dock below the lodge; I guessed it was Joe’s mother, Amy, who had taken it. Looking at the picture, I knew without being told that it was one of the happiest moments of Joe’s life, as this was one of the saddest.

“He gave me a fair price. More than fair. You know that Lucy and I have been thinking about selling for a while, anyway.” The corner of his mouth gave a tiny twitch, his eyes glazed over with a thin film of tears, and I would have moved heaven and earth at that moment to let him know that, basically, I loved him. He put his cup to his lips and drained the Scotch in one hard swallow. “I’m just glad we didn’t have to sell it to the loggers. Or someone who would carve it up.”

“I won’t, Joe. Jesus. I absolutely won’t.”

“We know you won’t,” Hal said. “That is,” he said, “the point.”

I looked at Kate, sitting cross-legged in her chair and watching us. In her hand, her cup was tipped at an angle that told me it was empty, but I couldn’t read her face. “You knew?”

“Some of it.” She nodded. “That the camp had been sold.”

I thought about what she was saying. “But not the rest.”

“That it’s yours?” Her eyebrows rose. “I’d have to say no. That I didn’t know.”

“And is it okay?”

“Hell, Jordan.” I would have liked a smile right then but didn’t get one. “Of course it’s okay. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I don’t rightly know.” And I didn’t. As far as I could tell, everybody had gotten just what they wanted, without even asking. “This is going to take a while to sink in,” I said.

Hal rose from the couch, and I noticed for the first time how tall he was, nearly a full head taller than Joe, or his own father. He fixed his eyes on me, squinting a little in the weak, yellow light of the office. “It’s a lot to think about. But it’s all right to be happy, too, Jordan. It’s a great gift.”

Which was, of course, precisely true. That’s exactly what it was.

I said, “Thank you.”

He gave me a weary grin. I thought he was about to shake my hand, sealing the bargain, but instead he fixed one hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

“You’re welcome, Jordan.”

Cronin is a fine writer, and The Summer Guest is a novel that will bring a lot of reading pleasure.

Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Summer Guest.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687