Thursday, August 13, 2015

Craig Lancaster’s “The Summer Son”

I’ve had my Kindle for four years now, and I occasionally discover a downloaded book that’s at first puzzling. Did I download that? If I did, why?

That’s how I tripped over The Summer Son by Craig Lancaster, published in 2011. It was sitting in my “Books to be Read” file on my Kindle. I clicked it open and started reading, and within the first few pages knew why I had it.

This is a story about a father and son, and how they are separated by more than miles. It’s a story about the oil fields in the West, and drilling in places like the Uinta Basin in Utah. And it’s about family, and family secrets, secrets buried but still affecting the lives of people who had nothing to do with them.

I know why the book is on my Kindle. My own father worked in the oilfields.

Mitch Quillen sells medical equipment. He, his wife Cindy and twin children live in San Jose. The marriage is rocky and getting rockier. Mitch hears from his father Jim about once a year; then he hears from him three times in a week. Each call lasts less than a minute. Cindy, knowing that their marriage is tied into Mitch’s problems with his father, convinces him to fly to Billings, Montana, to see what’s happening and try to resolve the relationship.

The answer is buried in the past, and buried even further back than Mitch realizes. When Mitch was a child, he spent summers with his father. His parents were divorced; his father was an independent oilfield driller based in Billings but working all over the West. The story moves back and forth from the crucial summer of 1979, when something happened that broke the father-and-son relationship, to the current year of 2007.

Mitch will learn that the reasons for his broken relationship with his father stretch back to his father’s own childhood. And also explain his father’s two broken marriages.

Craig Lancaster
It’s a captivating story, one that asks deep questions, compelling the reader to think through his own relationship with his father, and how much he does, and doesn’t, know.

In the process, we learn a lot about the oil business and its boom-and-bust cycles, the hard and fast living of many of the people involved in it, a fair amount of oilfield profanity, and how a father and son have to face the question of whether they even want to understand each other.

Lancaster is the author of several novels and a short story collection, including Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure: Stories (2011); 600 Hours of Edward (2012); Edward Adrift (2013); The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter (2014); and This is What I Want (2015). He lives in Montana.

A Summer Son is a seriously good story. I’m glad I found it on my Kindle.

Photograph: Utah Department of National Resources, Oil & Gas Division.

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