For most of us, a Midwestern summer heat wave doesn’t inspire much more than a trip to the pool or the local air-conditioned bar.
For Dean Bakopoulos, the sweltering summer of 2012 provided a meteorological setting for his third novel, “Summerlong.” The novel takes place that summer in Grinnell, Iowa, where Bakopoulos is the Writer-in-Residence at Grinnell College. In one section of the novel, Bakopoulos heads every chapter with the actual temperature on that day (although he had to fudge one daily high for dramatic purposes).
“I was living in Grinnell and we were living in this horrible heat wave, and we didn’t have central air,” he said. “I spent a lot of my nights wandering around the town. There was a lot more going on in the middle of the night that you would think. I would see some of the same people, fellow insomniacs wandering around. I realized there was this private life in this sleepy community that I wanted to tap into.”
The high temps in the 10-day forecast are mirrored by the fevered desires of the characters in “Summerlong.” Don and Claire Lowry are a middle-aged couple whose relationship has run aground, mired in boredom and financial trouble. Late one night, walking around Grinnell much like Bakopoulos did, he finds a beautiful young woman nicknamed “ABC” sprawled in the park.
ABC is grieving the death of her lover, and the pair start a friendship that edges closer and closer to an emotional affair. Meanwhile, Claire has done her own late-night wanderings and run into Charlie, the handsome twentysomething son of a former professor back home to sell the family house. They start their own start-and-stop dalliance.
And then ABC and Charlie meet and hit it off themselves.
Funny, sad and insightful, and unabashedly sultry, “Summerlong” is getting strong early reviews and is being featured on summer reading “must” lists from SFGate.com, the Miami Herald and elsewhere. Bakopoulos will read from the book this Saturday at 7 p.m. at A Room of One's Own.
The acclaim for the book is gratifying for Bakopoulos, who found his personal life dovetailing with that of Don and Claire’s as he was writing.
“I’ve never written a book that was so grueling emotionally, because it began to parallel my life in eerie and unexpected ways,” he said. “Finishing the book, I was the most exhausted I’ve ever been as a human being.”
On the other hand, Bakopoulos has never shied away from pouring some of his own life into his fiction. His acclaimed first novel, “Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon,” was set in a fictional Michigan town much like his own hometown. His second, “My American Unhappiness,” was set in a very recognizable Madison, where Bakopoulos lived for a decade, including as director of the Wisconsin Book Festival.
“I really love writing where this is a deliberate overlap between fiction and reality,” he said. “I really like using real settings, real dates. That’s one of the joys of fiction, sneaking in some nonfiction as well.”
Most reviewers – okay, every reviewer so far – has mentioned the copious amounts of sex scenes in “Summerlong.” Bakopoulos said he was aiming for scenes that were both erotic and awkward, reflecting both the characters’ desires and their hesitance to act on them.
“For me, it became a thing just to give myself permission to realize it’s not a bad part of life. Being raised Catholic, it’s taken me 40 years to do that. To pretend it’s not a motivation for a lot of what we do at some subconscious level is just foolish.”
While “Summerlong” deals primarily with emotions and desires, Bakopoulos didn’t want to write an “internal” novel where not much happens. Inspired by some writing he did for television, he gave the book a narrative momentum and a cinematic feel that pulls the reader forward.
“I structured the book much like how the first season of ‘Mad Men’ moved, actually – quick cinematic scenes, shifting points of view, trying to minimize exposition and backstory as much as I could, and just show characters in the moments of their most intense pressure.”
Bakopoulos said he’s excited to bring the book back to Madison. “Madison’s my literary home. That’s where I learned to become a writer.”