When considering the stories that truly capture the spirit of Maine, a few titles come quickly to my mind: Richard Russo’s novel of a decaying mill town, Empire Falls; Elizabeth Strout’s interconnected tales about Olive Kitteridge; and Monica Woods’ masterful look at, yes, another decaying mill town, the 2002 story collection Ernie’s Ark.
Now another tale must be considered. In his latest novel, Blue Summer, published last fall by Islandport Press, author Jim Nichols hones his prowess as a storyteller capable of catching the lightning in a bottle that is the essence of life in Maine: quixotic, sometimes tragic, often unforgiving, but never entirely devoid of hope.
As Blue Summer begins, we meet Calvin Shaw, fresh out of prison, trying to stay sober and seemingly short on options. Calvin has bottomed out and pretty much decided to give up, to “bring the old curtain down.” But then the melody at the heart of this story begins to play in his head. As Cal, a jazz musician, tries to capture the elusive tune on his cornet, he forgets his resolve to end it all.
Flash back 30 years to Baxter, Maine, Calvin’s family home. There’s the dad that Calvin adores, John Shaw, former high-school sports star, war hero and pillar of the community. Mom is reserved — she grew up in California, and hasn’t been fully accepted by her new neighbors. John says her problem is she “never learned to small-talk,” an essential skill in a gossipy, rural Maine town.
Everything changes in young Calvin’s life when John, driving home from a late-night poker game, is killed in a car accident. His mother, now in need of money, tries a number of ill-fitting jobs (nurse’s aid, dental assistant) before finally answering a help-wanted ad at the Randall Pike Real Estate Agency.
“Everybody knew old pig-eyed Randy Pike, who was something of a local legend,” Cal recalls. “He’d gotten his real estate license while still in high school, started his own business … that made him a shitload of money … and also elevated him to Big Man status in our little town. Even a messy divorce — with rumors about an underage babysitter — couldn’t touch him.”
Pike is an inveterate bully, and after Cal’s mother, in desperation, agrees to marry him, the family’s life spirals into a hell of abuse and humiliation. When a tragedy happens that Cal blames himself for, he retreats further into his music — the music that begins to assume its place at the center of the novel. Cal plays in a band with his Uncle Gus, and as he develops his chops, his story grows to include the world he escapes to when he’s blowing his horn.
Nichols skips around in time and locale, an approach that’s initially confusing, but then softly settles into a rhythm, not unlike an undulating jazz composition. From Baxter to Tampa to the Bolduc Correctional Facility to Portland, Nichols leads us on the journey of Cal’s descent and eventual redemption.
I found Nichols’ descriptions of Portland, and the burgeoning music scene Cal discovers there as a young man, especially riveting. This old Portland is a gritty place, a fishing town with a Wild-West ethos — naturally, Cal starts driving cab, which “turned out to be the one thing I was good at besides the trumpet.” It’s very different than the Portland I live in today, a city overtaken by gentrifying developers and Dog Nazis. Nichols lovingly describes the education of an aspiring musician, those first halting steps along the dark yet thrilling path of life as an artist.
Cal eventually gets retribution for the abuse he and his siblings suffered at the hands of Randy Pike. The price for this sweet revenge is prison, but even prison provides an escape from the dissolute life he’d been leading. Behind bars, Cal still has his music, and friends to riff with, and eventually he finds the melody of “Blue Summer,” the song that will lead him beyond it all.