At Summer’s End

‘The Summer Friend’ and ‘Riverman: An American Odyssey’
Charles McGrath (Elena Seibert)

In Texas, where I live, nobody uses the word summer as a verb. We’re aware that some people on the East Coast use the word this way, but it strikes us as deeply pretentious—not just a sign that you have money, but a sign that you have money and aren’t even self-conscious about it. To talk about summering somewhere is, to my ears, the equivalent of talking casually about your butler. One cannot summer in Galveston. To the summer-as-a-verb crowd, the word always seems to mean Martha’s Vineyard or owning a Cape Cod–style house in Cape Cod.  

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself recently charmed by a memoir that not only uses the verb form of summer quite a few times but also describes, in some detail, the author’s Cape Cod–style New England beach house. That author is Charles McGrath and his new memoir is called The Summer Friend. (Summer as an adjective is fine, by the way.) Maybe I was more receptive to these characteristics coming from McGrath, whose writing for the New York Times and the New Yorker is reliably smart and interesting and often more fun than the average piece of literary journalism. And now his first book, published in his mid-seventies, brings all of these qualities to the memoir, a genre where a sense of fun can be even more rare.  

In fact, fun is one of the central preoccupations of McGrath’s book. It’s a memoir about the joys of friendship and family but also about the joys of doing stuff, especially during the summer: swimming, lighting fireworks, sipping something as the coals glow on the grill, playing charades, inventing games on the front lawn, salvaging interesting items from the dump, putting ice down someone’s shirt, breaking and entering on a date, bridge-jumping at night. “Summer is when I’ve had the most fun in my life,” McGrath writes. “Summer is when I fell in love with the woman I married. And summer is when I was lucky enough to enjoy a long and unusual friendship at a time when I thought I was past making new friends.”  

The friendship begins, as most do, at a square dance. McGrath and his family had been renting a house in a small Massachusetts beach town, “enjoying an old-fashioned sort of summer: no TV, no phone calls, our only entertainment books, the beach, the river, occasional trips to the ice cream place.” They venture out to a weekly square dance at a Methodist church and there McGrath, who goes by Chip, meets another Chip. They discover, oddly enough, that they also both have five-year-old sons named Ben, as well as eight-year-old daughters. How could they not be friends?  

The two Chips, however, are not quite as identical as they might seem. “He was a WASP,” McGrath writes. “I was Irish Catholic.” McGrath grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Boston; the other Chip grew up near Exeter, where his father taught classics and was briefly headmaster. While McGrath spent several memorable summers as a boy in a small homemade shack on land his family won in a raffle (“People like us didn’t have summer places”), the other Chip and his forebears were the kind of family who’d been summering on the same property since the turn of the twentieth century.  

I found myself recently charmed by a memoir that not only uses the verb form of summer quite a few times but also describes, in some detail, the author’s Cape Cod–style New England beach house.

Despite these differences, their friendship lasts more than three decades, a relationship built much more on what they do together than what they say to each other. Over dinner and wine one night, they decide to get their swimsuits and jump off a thirty-foot bridge into the water, which becomes a family tradition. They compete together (and lose) in sailboat races. They take up golf and devote a summer day each year to playing as many holes on as many different courses as they can (no carts allowed), which leads McGrath, on one occasion, to fall into a “temporary coma” mid-round. They go lobstering in the early mornings, frequently misplacing their traps. They both seem to have a gift for having a good time.  

Reading about their various summer entertainments is a pleasure itself—McGrath manages even to make golf sound semi-interesting—but the book’s emotional weight stems from our knowledge that the author is recollecting all of this only after his friend’s death. While he celebrates everything that they did together, he also describes Chip’s struggles with prostate cancer in painful detail and reflects poignantly on everything they leave unsaid. Writing seven years after Chip’s passing, McGrath notes that he still finds it difficult “to think about summer without also thinking about him.”  

And so the book is also about the “sweetly, if sadly, pleasurable” experience of remembering all the summers we can’t repeat. It’s both a paean and an elegy, mourning the passing of time and the losses that come with it, while also reflecting on just how much enjoyment a person can squeeze out of a single life, or even a single summer day, especially when they’re fortunate enough to spend it with family and good friends. 

The Summer Friend may be best read in the fall, when everyone has returned to their too-busy routines, after the smell of sunscreen and salty air have returned to memory, as you find yourself wondering, once more, where exactly the summer went. It made me long even for the pleasure of summer boredom. Recalling the experience of taking his now-grown children to the beach, McGrath writes, “I spent what now seems like hours watching bucket after bucket of water get dumped into a freshly dug hole and then seep away, and learned that it’s possible to be bored half out of your mind and still have a pretty good time.”

 

The book is a reflection on just how much enjoyment a person can squeeze out of a single life, or even a single summer day, especially when they’re fortunate enough to spend it with family and good friends.

One of McGrath’s now-grown children, the aforementioned Ben, also released his first book this year. One passage in his father’s memoir describes a moment when Ben, no more than a toddler, “took to wandering by himself down the lane” to have lengthy conversations with a local fisherman. “It was around this time,” McGrath notes, “that Ben became obsessed with boats.” Fitting, then, that Ben—now a long-time New Yorker staff writer—has written a book about one man’s journey by boat (canoe, to be precise), a tale that led the younger McGrath to wander far from his home, having quite a few long conversations. The book is called Riverman: An American Odyssey, and it’s a revelatory work of narrative journalism.  

Riverman tells the story of Dick Conant, whom Ben meets by chance one Labor Day morning. McGrath and his young son are walking on the west bank of the Hudson near their home, twenty miles north of Manhattan, when one of their neighbors appears, gesturing “at a filthy vessel lashed to an iron loop in his seawall.” It’s a red plastic canoe, “packed as if for the apocalypse,” and it belongs to Conant, whom Ben soon meets inside his neighbor’s house and who turns out to be a very large, bearded, sunburned sixty-three-year-old in overalls. The destination of his canoe voyage is Naples, Florida, well over a thousand miles away.  

Later that night, curious about this mythical-seeming traveler, McGrath searches Conant’s name online and becomes “further intrigued by the scant digital traces that he seemed to have left.” Among those few traces is an old discussion-board thread on a Texas kayak fisherman’s forum that mentions “the adventures of Dick Conant,” who at the time was completing a different canoe journey from the Buffalo area to the Gulf of Mexico, via the Mississippi. On a whim, McGrath sets out in the middle of the night on his own kayak, trying to catch up to the strange visitor, whose canoe is no longer tied to his neighbor’s seawall.  

He doesn’t find him, but he does catch up to Conant the next day on land, and interviews him for a short New Yorker article. As McGrath finishes the interview, he offers Conant his name and number on the back of a printout of the kayak fisherman’s discussion board that he brought along. A few months later, when a red canoe full of waterlogged gear turns up in the middle of a North Carolina swamp, an investigator from the Wildlife Resources Commission calls the New York number he finds among Conant’s property, looking for any information he can find on the missing boater.  

The question of what exactly happened to Conant lingers over the entire book. Thus, you might assume, as I did, that you know exactly what this is: Into the Wild on a canoe. (McGrath acknowledges these comparisons in the book itself.) But Riverman is driven less by the mystery of Conant’s disappearance than by the details of his life. In fact, the book has more in common with Joe Gould’s Secret, Joseph Mitchell’s classic book-length profile of an “odd and penniless and employable little man” who sleeps in Manhattan doorways while claiming to be at work on a massive oral history of the world. Both are about the author’s quest to understand a mysterious and compelling figure on the margins. The only difference is that Conant’s multi-volume opus actually exists.  

By the time Conant goes missing, he has left behind several unpublished book manuscripts about his solo expeditions, along with reams of minutely annotated atlases that he used as a form of travel journal. McGrath draws heavily from these documents, using them to paint a detailed picture of Conant’s past and his inner life. He also tracks down and interviews scores of people who encountered Conant along the way, in riverside bars, campsites, coffee shops, public libraries, on small-town sidewalks and outside churches, or as he attempted to lug his canoe through the middle of Trenton, New Jersey. And even the briefest encounters with Conant seem to have left a lasting mark. “Whether it had been five years or ten or twenty,” McGrath writes, “many of the people I reached claimed to have been discussing our man within weeks or even days…and as often as not recalling the very details and episodes I hadn’t yet asked about.”  

Read “Riverman” alongside “The Summer Friend” and be struck by the mystery of how some American lives can turn out so differently from others.

Many of the people McGrath tracks down are struck by the riverman’s generosity, his heroism, his joyful nature, his gift for telling stories, and his knack for bringing out the stories of others. Some of them think of Conant as a lifelong friend after meeting him for a single day. Others, however—especially those who’ve known Conant from his life away from the river—find him to be a sad, troubled character, not a folk hero but rather a man in need of “an intervention.”  

He struggles with his physical and mental health, as well as his hygiene. He drinks too much. He has difficulty maintaining a job. He’s estranged from much of his extended family. (McGrath meets his brothers, who joke about “Dicky’s” turbulent past with what McGrath recognizes from his own family as “lapsed Catholic fatalism.”) He’s insecure and lonely, dreaming of a domestic life that’s very different from his own—“He always wanted the white picket fence,” one of his brothers says. Before his final river trip, he was semi-squatting on a swampy piece of land on the outskirts of Bozeman. “I’m homeless,” he tells McGrath. “People call it homeless. I don’t.”  

McGrath’s attempt to hunt down every Conant link he can find leads him to a series of other characters on the riverside margins, some of whom are as interesting, unusual, and generous as Conant himself. What emerges is a revealing, often funny, and at times tragic glimpse into a whole host of lives that might otherwise be hidden to us. Read this book for their stories, too. Read it for all the surprising narrative tributaries McGrath navigates, including a brief but poignant appearance by a Catholic priest in the final pages. Read Riverman alongside The Summer Friend and be struck by the mystery of how some American lives can turn out so differently from others.  

The Summer Friend
Charles McGrath
Knopf
$25 | 240 pp.

Riverman
An American Odyssey
Ben McGrath
Knopf
$29 | 272 pp.

Burke Nixon is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, where he teaches a course called Fiction and Empathy.

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Counting Down the Days

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