Cover image for Summer's house
Summer's house
Lehman, Eric Gabriel, 1954-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
374 pages ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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One hot New York City summer in the 1970s, the lives of three very different people - each uncomfortable with their surrounds and struggling to find a place where they can feel a sense of belonging - are forever changed.Raymond, an overly cerebral 17 year old, lives in the Bronx with his increasingly estranged parents. He's decided that the time has come for him to fall in love even if he is soure why or with which gender and grapples with the conflicting directions in which he is pulled by his desires and fears. As his parents become increasingly estranged, his mother leaves for a trip to Israel leaving Raymond and his father housemates in an apartment in which neither feels at home.Jerome, one of the legion of unrecognized poets marginally employed as a delivery man Seven Wonders Gourmet Foods, cannot rid himself of his obsession for the woman he loved and lived with - until she threw him out when he uncovered her secret past. His mentor - and sole friend - is the aging, erudite Maurice Rose, who - like Jerome - is about to thrown out of his home.Lester, Raymond's maternal uncle, is the middle aged owner of Seven Wonders Gourmet Foods and an unsuccessful suburbanite living on the edges of New York City. In a family and area were success and status are everything, he must confront the miseries of his failing business, a tense home life, and a persistent obscene caller who knows a bit too much about his wife.Drawn together by chance, circumstance, and mysterious woman with a secret in her past, their lives' intersect, collide, pull apart, and irreversibly change.

Author Notes

Eric Gabriel Lehman is the author of two previous critically acclaimed novels - Waterboys and Quaspeck - and his stories and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies He is the winner the National Arts Club Award and the New Letters Literary Award for fiction. Born in New York, where he currently lives, he teaches at City College of New York.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

"It was a summer of no fixed addresses, of shifting homes and uncertain residence," reflects 17-year-old Raymond, one of the three wandering narrators of Lehman's complex, richly textured third novel (after Waterboys). Banished to his uncle's house in New Jersey after his mother learns his father has been cheating on her and takes off alone on a summer vacation to Israel, Raymond sneaks home to find that his evicted father has also secretly set up camp in the family's closed-up Manhattan apartment. Left unsupervised, Raymond divides his nights between the park, where he explores a confusing attraction to older men, and the apartment of Agatha, 10 years his senior, who has a troubling history of mental illness. The second displaced protagonist that 1970s summer is Jerome, Agatha's ex-boyfriend. A struggling writer, Jerome secretly fills his journals with Agatha's nighttime ramblings; when she tells him to "get the hell out,'' he floats from a boarding house in Brooklyn to an abandoned loft building in SoHo. The only fixed address in Jerome's life is his job at Seven Wonders Gourmet Imports, where he drives a delivery truck for Raymond's Uncle Lester, the third protagonist. Lester's displacement is primarily financial: his gourmet grocery business is failing, his wife spends too much and Lester is too cowardly to confess his insolvency. He strives for acceptance from his neighbors in their snooty New Jersey subdivision, but secretly feels more comfortable spending time with his emotionally troubled young son, Stevie, and the subdivision's one outcast, Eddie. As the summer comes to a close, the stories of the three narrators converge. Lehman's evocative grasp of the hostility, violence and misery haunting seemingly ordinary families is almost uncomfortably lifelike. His energetic prose moves the plot along quickly, and his vivid dialogue and well-paced description make protagonists and secondary characters alike three dimensional. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One                             For as long as I could remember, my parents didn't get along. They never argued, no. The Podilacks two floors above us, now they argued. Several nights a week, Mr. Podilacks's drunken Ukrainian snarled as Mrs. Podilack hurled plates, and their noisy strife slid down the heating pipes and slipped menacingly into my dreams. Things seemed quieter in our house, but it was the stiff calm of a truce.     I was their only child, moody and intolerant as only children are, fulcrum of this delicate balance, and I soon grew aware of my power to upset it. A fork dropped at supper or a fuse blown when I fiddled with a lamp socket brightened the dullest evening. When I was older, hitting my father up for spending money brought on my mother's protest, which flamed into argument the moment he reached for his wallet. I'd leave the house, pockets full, as my mother glared. I justified my antics by telling myself that I took their minds off their domestic misery. I was as good as a marriage counselor.     Yet my motives weren't selfless; I was terrified of a breakup. For a long time, we'd been but paper-clipped together by last name. With no siblings, I sensed that our frail family tree wouldn't withstand too much of a storm. I needn't have worried. My mother considered divorce something for the irresponsible and unstable, not for decent Jewish people. As for my father, staying married was a matter of practicality or, perhaps, habit. He lived in near-biblical simplicity and claimed that he'd always be happy as long as he had a roof over his head and money coming in. This, as it turned out, was not entirely true.     Perhaps the chief source of my mother's dissatisfaction with my father was her failure to accept that her life with him would always be ordinary. Sundays she took me downtown in search of elegance. She dressed with care, hat and gloves and a new Bonwit Teller dress bought with her employee discount, and she reminded me to shine my shoes. My father never went with us, preferring to work at his drafting table in his undershirt.     "Just look at that architecture," she exclaimed before the elegant town houses near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, our destination for the day. "Those magnificent windows, the masonry." I dutifully scanned the glass polished to a blue sheen, cornucopia clustered over spandreled doorways, columns bearing Corinthian curls. Other people's luxury enthralled her.     Her face took on a reverential glow inside the museum. "I can't remember the last time I was here," she said, but I already knew: not since I married your father . She divided her life history into Before and After, with marriage the dark line of demarcation. The portraits of the Old Masters regarded us with severity from their heavy gold frames. My mother filed past piously, a guest in their house, and she seemed relieved when we made it to the more-recent American paintings, where the women wore recognizable clothing and jewelry.     Afterward, we stopped at a coffee shop for sandwiches.     "Don't wolf your food down," she said. She longed to stretch out our Manhattan holiday for as long as she could, but I'd already had enough, a token at the ready in my pocket, and soon we'd been back on the train, returning to our old lives.     She consoled herself over her unsatisfying marriage with buying clothes. The worse things were, the more she bought. Like with the Queen of England's hats, I could rarely recall seeing my mother in the same outfit twice. My father, on the other hand, grew ever more spartan. For every new dress, he held onto a shirt a year longer, wearing it out at the elbows, perhaps out of spite.     But life went on. We ate together. My mother signed my report cards, and my father paid for my clarinet lessons. We dutifully attended family functions together, my father and I in our rented formal wear, my mother in yet another new dress, but once back in the house, their estrangement quietly resumed. We might have been no happier than the Podilacks, but at least no one knew.     They maintained a discreet distance from one another, my mother in her bedroom and my father in his: a corner of the living room where he'd set up camp a year or two earlier. At first my mother took pains to mask their separation and kept the room as photogenic as a furniture advertisement, the glass top of the coffee table mirror-bright, the vacuumed carpet a freshly plowed field. Early in my senior year of high school, when she ceased folding up his bedding in the morning, letting the living room look like the boarder's room it had become, I knew things had taken a turn for the worse. It wasn't long after that when we found out that my father had been having an affair. I was never the chummy type, and I had my own opinions about things, so perhaps for those reasons, I was obliged to discover the melancholy pleasures of solitude early on. I busied myself with things best done alone: rearranging my drawers, reading magazines, and collecting postcards while my mother's mambo records blasted in the background. I shunned the playground--a nest of carnivorous local toughs lying in wait for chumps like me who didn't care about stickball. I felt safer with the shyer kids, although they, too, had their shy-person way of doing things that they also preferred doing alone. I often fell into conversation with old ladies on line in Woolworth's, mesmerized by the poignant ring of their voices. I spent undisturbed afternoons in the yard behind our building, cloister-like and fragrant with rot. The abandoned railroad station nearby drew me to its picturesque decay. Stray dogs were always sniffing their way over to me.     I'd inherited my mother's insomnia and was proud of this affliction, for it seemed the mark of the stylishly neurotic and urbane. Nights, I snuck out of the house and went for walks. Our neighborhood was bounded by railroad tracks, expressways, and the oily arm of the Harlem River. Defying prudence, I followed streets until they dead-ended and crumbled into no-man's-land. There I'd sit, waiting for the subway to churn out of the tunnel up onto the El, a deep-sea beast breaking the surface of the water with a lusty snort. I'd think of poems to write, imagining myself the subject of a curled sepia photograph, wearing a faraway and wistful expression. Mostly I waited, although it took some time before I knew exactly what I waited for.     "You and your solitude," Agatha would say later that summer. She told me I remained at too much remove from myself. "You'll never be able to love anyone that way."     "I love you," I told her.     "No, you don't, Raymond. You just like the idea of loving me. We could become good friends if only you'd get these romantic ideas out of your head." She was a good ten years older than I, which seemed to give her the right to tell me what I was thinking. But she didn't understand how necessary my solitude was. People scared me.     There was another reason why I took those long walks riverward: it kept me from going the other way--toward the park. The park wasn't like most other city parks--concrete deserts, dry boccie courts, and peeling beech trees. This park was a wild outcropping of granite, a green fortress above a moat of traffic on all sides, rising to a rocky summit flattened by a rectangular terrace set with benches. Like all such castles, it housed secrets, dangers, temptations. The terrace was reached by broad stairs that curled around the park's perimeter, turning ever inward with Yellow-Brick-Road whimsy. Missing bench slats and broken glass marked the place as a hangout, and only one of the two lamps worked, so at night, the terrace hung in shadow. I'd sit there breathing in the city's sour spirit. I imagined myself to be standing at the very top of the world, poignantly alone, except that, unlike those walks to the river, I knew that I wasn't. There was always a guy or two up there.     Guys began to be everywhere, or, more precisely, I began to notice them in a different way. They'd always been there, of course, elbowing their way around and ready to slug you if you stepped on their feet by accident. But suddenly I saw how their muscles bunched up when they bent their arms, the appealing bulge of sinew in their calves, and the enticing curve between their neck and shoulders. I became aware of their shoulders. I discovered that just about all guys looked great from the back. In short, I stopped seeing them as who they were, but as what they were. And what were they? The objects of my as-yet-unnamed desire.     About the same time, I also began to see a different kind of guy, one who walked with just a little too much edge in his step as if in a hurry, or anxious to draw glances toward himself as if by convection. Without looking at anything in particular, these guys took in everything with a microscope's precision. They often wore shoes without socks. Sneakers without socks wouldn't have stood out, but shoes? For some reason--did I attract them?--they always managed to sit themselves next to me in the subway, their butterfly net of a glance dropping over me. I enjoyed the attention, aware of the alluring power of my disinterest, but any pleasure curdled the moment they spoke or, worse, looked ready to touch me, since it implied that we were alike. I always saw it coming. A watery pleading softened their faces, and their mouths opened just enough to emit a waiting breath. I'd tell myself to change places or look away, all the while curious about what might happen next. If I didn't move, it wasn't long before I'd feel a slithery caress to my thigh or a hand darting between my legs, swift as a lizard's tongue. Then I'd flee, disgusted and full of pity. Knowing they wanted me was reason enough to find them repulsive.     But last summer I let a man from the terrace do me. He had a tattoo of a dark sun just below his left shoulder and smooth, shapely arms. He slid beside me on the bench, graceful as a dancer, and my heart sped into a trot and then a canter, and I was ready to flee. But I didn't. The light painted a delicate line down his smooth arms, and his eyes were large and deep. With his narrow face and long hair, he was, I thought, pretty, which confused me, since I'd never thought of men as being pretty. We began to talk, and all the while, I waited for the sly caress, the sneaky hand slipping onto my knee when he thought I wasn't looking. Instead, he surprised me by inviting me up to his apartment and pointed to a row of windows in a building across the street.     His lobby was brightly lit and walled with mirrors reflecting us paired together dozens of times. People looked, knowing just what we were up to, I was certain. The elevator came and disbursed a frowning old matriarch with a laundry cart. Go home , she seemed to say. Go home right now, meet a girl, marry and multiply . But the closing elevator doors sealed my fate, and we ascended.     My eyes shot around his living room, on the lookout for signs of strangeness, which I thought must mark men like him, but the sofa and coffee table appeared innocent enough, and so did the stereo. He offered me the same cheap brand of orange soda my mother bought and served it in a normal glass. But when he lowered the lights--men like him obviously had dimmer switches--my teeth started chattering. I was on the edge of an arctic precipice, and the slightest movement might hurl me into its icy, jagged mouth.     "Gotta warm you up," he said in a voice suddenly deep. His palms worked heat into my skin. Slender fingers ivied around my wrist, forearm, and arm muscle, while his large eyes monitored my every reaction. His hands sleeved my skin in warmth, and the tattoo slithered over the muscle hardening in his forearm, its sun shooting out fiery flares. He slung his arm around my neck and pulled me close with just enough firmness to let me know he meant business. His mouth sought mine, but I wouldn't kiss him, and my face fell against his neck, whose sour-salty smell was exhilarating because it was so uniquely a man's. His hand slid under my shirt, migrating across my chest and soft belly, which I quickly tightened. He pushed my mouth against his chest, and I tasted him. This was a man, I told myself. A man .     He parted my knees tenderly, deliberately. His fingers worked my zipper and belt; soon my legs were exposed and, seconds later, my thing, wrinkled and puny in his hand, shaming me. His mouth swiftly engulfed it, kneading it between his tongue and lips, and miraculously it hardened. Soon--too soon for me to worry about what was happening--everything pulled out of me. I looked down to see my juice clinging to his face like fat, white tears. He grinned. It had happened. It had really happened. He went for a tissue.     I didn't stay. I feared he'd make me do to him what he'd done to me. I hurried down the hallway, its every peephole wide with surveillance. I took the stairs to avoid looking at myself in the elevator's mirrors and barrelled down the stairs until dizzy, rounding each landing with centrifugal speed to throw off what I was certain would now cling to me for the rest of my life. I began watching old black-and-white movies on TV after school. Not surprisingly, my favorites were melodramas of rocky marriages: Back Street, Five Finger Exercise , and Come Back, Little Sheba . I began pumping my mother for details of her domestic misery, but she clung to her secrets tightly. Secrets had a long tradition in her family. A careless remark about my grandfather's youthful liaisons had all the adults in the living room shush ing. There was talk of my grandmother's clandestine visits to a woman in South Brooklyn to get "cleaned out" when she couldn't afford another child. And what had my grandfather said to Uncle Abe one fateful afternoon that made him storm out of the house--the very same day the Brooklyn Dodgers won the pennant--vanishing for years until turning up in San Francisco many years later? (When my grandfather's beloved Dodgers migrated to the coast, Uncle Alfred termed it divine retribution.) There were more secrets: one of my mother's cousins had been a communist; another believed that Adlai Stevenson communicated with her via the radio; still another--her name was never mentioned without a hush falling on the room--killed herself. Nothing of this was ever spoken of openly--no one wanted to risk being quoted--but passed on by word of mouth, tongues clicking like telegraphs. "Hint at, don't accuse," might have been the motto on the family crest, had there been one. When Uncle Lester landed in Chapter 11 at the end of that summer, no one in the family was surprised, since they'd already found out about it.     So many secrets. No wonder I found myself trapped in my own.     The biggest secret was, of course, my father's affair. The revelation came, sadly enough, just before Mother's Day. In an act of stupidity or cruelty, depending upon whose version you believed, Uncle Lester told his wife about it, and Aunt Rhoda in turn told my mother by phone. The question on everyone's mind was why Uncle Lester had waited until just that moment to drop this bomb. My father, it seems, had been carrying on for months.     Perhaps my mother must have sensed that something bad was about to happen, for she began confiding in me. On some of my sleepless nights, I'd creep past my father snoring in the living room and tap on my mother's door. She, too, was wide awake, propped up in bed with countless pillows before the late movie, doing her nails. My father banned, the room had become a feminine domain, soft as a tent from the many dresses hangered on the backs of doors. New blouses and a Pandora's box of scarves streamed out of drawers.     Doing her nails was my mother's sole hobby. A case held a manicurist's battery of delicately curved nail scissors, wooden cuticle pushers, emery boards asparkle with grit, as well as a large palette of nail polish and polish remover smelling of fermented roses. Somehow, my mother found something to cut, file, or polish on her nails every night. She'd claim to be ready to turn in, but it was never long before she set her nail things aside and reached for her cherished Gutenberg-sized snapshot album, its stiff black pages paned with snapshots.     "This was when your father came back from overseas," she'd say, the tip of a nail punishing the snapshot. "He still thinks that the whole world revolves around him, his mother's fair-haired boy who could do no wrong, the good one--"     As if summoned, my father passed by, ghostlike, Hamlet's dead father afoot in Elsinore. We fell silent as a pair of thieves, and the book's cover flipped closed, releasing a sigh of dust. I half-expected the door to open and for my father to thrust his head in and give his version of the story, but his soft tread continued across the carpet to thud upon the bathroom's tile.     "This was taken right after we were married," she'd continue when the coast was clear. A couple resembling my parents leaned against the railing of the Coney Island boardwalk, my mother short--"petite" was the word for it--and my father tall and lanky. He wore the baggy pants of the period, a jaunty cap, shirtsleeves rolled up like a stevedore's; she, a square-shouldered jacket, hair pulled back ballerina-style and topped with a tam-o'-shanter. Another shot showed them sunk into the mountainous cushions of my grandmother's sofa, diligently fluffed up before the next person sat down. I appeared in the pictures, wrinkly and unidentifiable at first, then defiant as I inched my way into as many scenes as I could. For the next couple of pages, we were a real family, a smiling twosome posing for the picture-taking third. I'd examine those snapshots for signs of the heartache to come, without ever finding any. The lens had captured only sunny, weekend days. But after all, only happy people had their pictures taken. They'd met as art students, moving in the scruffy but noble bohemia south of 14th Street. They'd each started out as a painter, but my mother went to work selling dresses at Bonwit Teller's, and my father quit school to draw illustrations for a technical magazine. Just before I started junior high school, Uncle Alfred got my father a job at his printing press in Long Island City. A sour cloak of ink clung to him when he arrived home in the evening, and no amount of soap erased the stain etched into his fingers.     Sometimes I went to work with him on the weekends when there were rush jobs to do. The press occupied a loft like an airplane hangar. I carried folders of material from one department to the other or hauled reams of paper, cool from the storage room. The smooth repetitions of the great hot-type machines were the calisthenics of steel giants. There at the press, cushioned by noise--and far from my mother--my father was at ease.     He lugged home an unused drafting table from the press and set it up in a corner of the living room. His dream was to design a new typeface, and he copied type specimens from catalogues with the patience of a monk. I'd find his penciled marks in the Post , mimicking the curves and serifs of advertisements, and his calligraphy embellished the covers of my book reports.     Nights, the patient scratch of his pen drew me from my homework into the living room. He molded each letter like a strip of wrought iron. O was the most difficult of letters to draw correctly, he said, all curve, hardly a letter at all. S was a toboggan ride. M was a cathedral's twin spires, W a valley, and B the side of a cliff, while Z was old and stooped. Strange: he spent his days around machines that spat out pages by the thousands, but he labored over individual words at night. Every second letter or so, he stopped to let the nib's proboscis drink up the shiny ink; then he'd continue and soon an entire sentence filigreed the line. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Let Hertz put you in the driver's seat. Yes, we have no bananas . How important it all looked.     "What do you think?" he'd ask, holding up a sheet.     "Nice." It was what I always said. I never knew what else to say. He wasn't much of a talker, and I was shy with him. I was convinced that he didn't like me, a careful, clean-shirted boy who pleased his teachers. My loose-leaf notebook was as neat as a scrivener's ledger, my textbooks crisply covered. I'd banned all wire hangers from my closet, using only wooden ones, and I hung up my shirts with the top button buttoned. Yet even if I was sure that I was too nice for him, he intrigued me. There was something slick and seditious about the way he sidestepped my mother, and my esteem for him only grew when I learned of his affair. The Friday night Aunt Rhoda broke the news, I'd lumbered into the apartment later than usual. My friend Stuie's dope still fogged my head.     "Where were you?" My mother's bark was whiplash to the brain. The Sabbath candles flickered with accusation in the kitchen. She sat on the sofa, still in her work clothes, stockinged feet pulled under her, an ominous sign, for she was never home for more than five minutes without changing. She told me the news.     "Your Aunt Rhoda apologized afterward for having to call me up," she said. "So why did she?" She tore a tissue from the box. "I would have been better off not knowing." She avoided my eyes; the news shamed her.     "How did Uncle Lester find out about it?"     "Your Uncle Alfred told him." She blew her nose. "It's been going on for a couple of months already."     "Who with?"     My mother glared at me. I'd asked the wrong question. I was supposed to share her grief, not be excited by it.     "Typical of Lester that he should make his wife call and do his dirty work for him," she muttered, throwing down a pulpy mash of tissue. "What I want to know is, how long did Lester know about it before he said anything?" In our family, matters were pondered, even in the midst of tragedy.     I realized that my father should have been home by now. "Where's Dad?" I asked.     She didn't know. She'd called the press. Uncle Alfred said he'd left early. We continued sitting there for I don't know how long, my mother tearing out tissue after tissue, me not knowing what to say. It occurred to me that we were waiting for my father to return. When the phone rang, my mother leaped for it.     "Oh, hello, Ma," she said in a small voice. (Continues...) Excerpted from Summer's House by Eric Gabriel Lehman. Copyright © 2000 by Eric Gabriel Lehman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.