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.