The Sound of America: Jeanne Thornton’s Summer Fun
(Soho Press, 2021)
When you hear about a book called Summer Fun that’s about a ’60s rock band à la The Beach Boys you may have a particular idea for the cover, maybe even the story. Close your eyes, picture it—because that’s the only time you’ll experience your assumption of the book. Summer Fun by Jeanne Thornton is an epistolary novel that is as much mystery as cultural analysis and rewards the reader by never giving us what we expect or what we think we want.
Our narrator is Gala, a trans woman in 2007 working at a hostel in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. With the desert as “her garden to tend,” she cleans the hot springs tubs and soaks, her body floating in a “geothermal womb” as she stares out at the Rio Grande. She is a part-time conjurer and full-time obsessive fan of the one-time ubiquitously popular ’60s band The Get Happies. She writes long spiraling letters to B—, the songwriter. She is honest with B— that with her letters she has woven a spell to ensure that The Get Happies have a reunion show and that for B— “a crisis will come upon you. You are silent now … but soon you won’t have to be.”
Gala’s manifestations do come true. After performing the ritual to bring this all to pass, she dreams of a cis woman—a dyke with purple hair and piercings—who will destroy the world. Then she appears, Caroline Wormwood, filming Gala as she soaks in the tubs. Caroline has mysterious wealth and may be a long lost relative of The Get Happies.
Jeanne Thornton clues us into the multiple worlds happening at once, just as multiple mysteries carry us forward, like: “Why should we care about The Get Happies?”; “Who the hell is Caroline Wormwood?”; “Why is B—’s name hyphenated?”; “Will B— ever break free of the trappings of surviving an abusive family or a world that hates trans women, wait … will Gala?” We get all these answers but in atypical ways which is proof of Thornton’s skill in disrupting nostalgia and storytelling. Just because a character manifests something or the spell takes hold doesn’t mean they suddenly know how to choose it or have the strength left or the power to move towards their desires again and again; to keep trying.
“And the only magical error you can make is to lack the courage of your convictions, not to believe, absolutely, that what you desire is good and not wrong. The only magical error you can make is not to follow the advice the angels give.”
The letters Gala writes alternate between telling B— some of her present day life and chronicling the rise of The Get Happies and B—’s coming of age. The mid-60s are a time of false enchantments and The Get Happies “sound like America” with lyrics that enshrine the illusion: the smell of the beach; charbroiled meat diffusing onion; tall, thin blond boys and their busty girlfriends-cum-wives; cars with the kind of wheels that make them float. “You’re working—you’re happy” is the dream that these white middle class teenage boys of the ’60s have been raised with, and some of them might be noticing that the existence of their dream relies on someone else being miserable. It’s why their future father-in-laws put guns in their hands, why their fathers kill a weak dog in front of them. B— sees all of this, but more clearly understands how everyone else’s happiness in the book depends on the songwriter’s misery and secrets.
“If you tell no one [about your pain] you’re secretly the strongest person of all.” B— thinks through Gala’s narration. B— and Gala excel at the art of making sure no one knows what they are thinking or feeling and are also very good at suppressing their own needs. The way Thornton is able to construct the limited embodiment and connection that surviving abuse and a violent cis culture puts on the body is one of the greatest hauntings in the text.
“It’s very confusing, imagining what someone may want or do,” Gala commiserates, and it is exhausting trying to always make sure that no one around them suspects their true desires. In completely different decades from one another, Gala and B— are performing aliveness and connection and it is Gala, as a kind of future ancestor to B— who continually reminds B— who finally comes into her true name, Diane, that “you have more power than you believe, Diane; your inability to understand that doesn’t make people less subject to it.”
And Diane does come into her power as a woman in 1967 and as a musician as she writes and creates the mythic album Summer Fun: like Pet Sounds if it were touched by an even more divine hand. Diane is making music for other Angels of Gender, other women like her. “We’ve got to haunt the tapes,” she tells her exhausted musicians and her confused family who are being asked to do a thing they have never heard of before—to see her as she wants to be seen. That no one ever hears the album in its entirety is perhaps the point of the album.
Americans like to know why things fail. We like to look back at artists we love and find the moment where they didn’t try hard enough and then the moment where they finally did, vindicated and richly rewarded. Perhaps this is the story someone is telling in terms of the attention queer and trans narratives are suddenly getting. “Police society has advanced to meet you, Diane; the time to make money from your secrets has arrived at last.” This is what white Baby Boomers believed, and in turn those of us who had them as parents embodied: If you try hard enough, it is yours. Thornton’s novel gently pats that narrative on the hand and takes a knife to the world as it is, slicing ribbons that emit a light where The Get Happies actually do sound like America.