SUMMERLONG, by Dean Bakopoulos. Ecco, 354 pp., $26.99.
I knew Dean Bakopoulos' new novel, "Summerlong," was going to be A-OK by page 19, where an aside about rural Iowa includes this line: "And they laughed about the strangeness of the dive bars -- meth heads and farmers and blown-apart high school football failures all drinking together, an invented family held together by bad decisions and muted rage and the occasionally intense night of karaoke with undergraduates." In that sentence, Bakopoulos, author of two previous novels, transforms a cliche into a nano-narrative with insight, humor and confident knowledge of his setting. If you have to spend a long, hot summer in Grinnell, Iowa, studying a marriage in free fall, this is the narrator you want with you.
"Summerlong" moves among a group of quirky characters with crisscrossing relationships. In the first chapter, we meet Don Lowry, a real estate agent in his late 30s. Out for an evening walk, Don finds a body in a park: the sleeping body of a young woman named Amelia Benitez-Coors, known by her initials, ABC. ABC's girlfriend has recently died in a freak accident; she herself is considering suicide. "I need someone to get high with me," ABC tells Don, and takes him back to a house where he mowed lawns in his youth, the house of an elderly woman with whom ABC is staying in exchange for caretaking and weed scoring.
In the second chapter, Don's wife, Claire, who thinks Don is downstairs watching TV, wakes in the middle of the same night craving a cigarette. She puts on her sneakers and jogs to the convenience store to get a pack. When she realizes she's left home without her wallet, she starts kicking the ice machine, attracting the attention of Charlie Gulliver, a young actor who's just made the drive back home from Seattle. Charlie's father, a former professor at the college, is institutionalized with dementia; Charlie plans to sort out his papers, hoping to finding a novel in the drawer. Like Don and ABC, Charlie and Claire will spend some time that night smoking and drinking. Nobody commits adultery. Yet.
When the two Lowrys get back to their house at dawn, the police are there. They've banged on the door to serve foreclosure papers, and that's woken the kids, who are upset and confused. "Everything's okay! It's all okay!" shouts Claire. And Part I ends there.
Five subsequent sections follow the dynamics of these characters as they weave through what is clearly a very recent summer. Taylor Swift is playing everywhere, Claire has a panic attack at Trader Joe's, Don takes the kids to a water park using a Groupon. Still, the story has a classic feel; marriage has been like this at least since Updike.
"Summerlong" is a novel with a literal gun in the drawer and a suicide threat hanging over it. Trust Bakopoulos to resolve matters in the final section, when much of the cast takes a trip to Lake Superior. "Compared to the moody and fierce North Atlantic, the vista of the icy blue lake seems to make your heart swell rather than tremble," thinks ABC when she sees it. The novel's ending, sort of surprisingly, provokes the same reaction.