“Blue Summer: A Novel” by Jim Nichols; Islandport Press, Yarmouth, Maine, 2020; 282 pages, paperback, $17.95.

Recommending books to people is a fraught activity.

The difficulty is that you never know for sure whether a book you like will be a book someone else will like. I once recommended “Jane Eyre” to some home-schooling family members. They detested it. My literary credibility was destroyed inside my own family.

My fellow reviewer Laurie Hertzel wrote recently: “We love a book because the language strikes us, or because the sentiments echo our own, or because the story opens up a world of thoughts and ideas that we had never before considered.” And because of other, more arcane reasons. Such as, the subject matter matters to you personally.

So when I tell you that “Blue Summer” by Jim Nichols is one of the best books I read this summer, I say so with absolute certainty, but unsure who will share the feeling. Here’s what I mean.

“Blue Summer” is the story of Calvin Shaw, of Baxter, Maine, who at the outset of the book, in 1997, is in the Bolduc Correctional Facility, writing down how he came to be there. Calvin is kind of a ne’er-do-well jazz musician who two years earlier was living in a trailer park and driving a taxi in Tampa, Florida. Taking us back to the trailer park, Calvin tells us he learned in a phone call that his Uncle Gus, his childhood music mentor, had a stroke and was taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland. Calvin decided to go home to Maine before Gus could die. Whether you can go home again is one of the book’s central questions. But fresh out of jail on a minor offense intimately related to his propensity to drink too much, and having nothing else going, Calvin headed north.

This return to Baxter, located in coastal Knox County, is extremely complicated because of events in his childhood in the 1960s. Calvin spends more chapters telling us about his relationships with his brother Alvin and older sister Julie, the sudden death of their father, and their damagingly aloof mother, who ended up getting remarried to the local real estate swindler. Things went downhill from there. Calvin’s saving childhood grace was music, nourished by Uncle Gus.


None of this material is terribly remarkable or even particularly probing. But what is remarkable is the clarity with which Calvin shapes his own character and circumstances, which, as it turns out, I recognize from real life. I feel like I must have known him in Portland back in the 1970s, when he was playing with Don Doane’s band. If I didn’t, then I knew people in Portland just like him. Extraordinarily affable, prone to drink too much, kind to children and animals, cursed in love, and a skilled musician who lacked just enough luck and just enough determination to make the big time. So for one thing, I don’t know what this story will be like for readers who did not already know Calvin in 1970s Portland. But he fascinates me.

For another thing, music vibrates in and underneath everything in this book. It’s a plot thread, a sign of what goes on in Calvin’s soul, a motif so well detailed in theory, performance and description that you’re almost hearing it follow Calvin around. My own conscious life is haunted by a perpetual music soundtrack I have little control over, and “Blue Summer” reflects a facet of that experience. So I don’t know what this story will be like for readers who do not hear music in their heads all the time. But Jim Nichols’ understanding of this fascinates me.

There is, for example, the catchy, probing melody that comes to Calvin out of the blue, as it were. At the trailer in Tampa, he gets out his Olds cornet and develops the tune a little bit, finds a scale and key that fits. “I keep trying, and then something nudges me just a half-step modal, and that leads me in a direction I’m not expecting, and I go out there a ways and manage to find my way back, and brother, when I do, it raises the hair on my neck.” He names the tune “Blue Summer.”

It won’t let go of him, and takes on a haunting quality almost like the composer Vinteuil’s “little phrase” in Proust. The scenes in which Calvin tinkers with it after arriving back in Maine make up some of the most lucid writing I’ve ever seen on playing music. It’s all very simply, plainly stated, but its accuracy to my own basic understanding of the effects of hearing and playing music is extraordinary. What this will be like for non-musicians reading this book, I don’t know.

On top of all this, the plot — which switches back and forth between Baxter in the 1960s and ’70s; Tampa 1995; and Maine in 1995 and ’97 — is exceptionally well-paced. Calvin’s casual, observant, generous, good-natured, conflicted voice skillfully sketches events and troubles of his childhood, his relationships with his sister, brother, mother, and most painfully, his abusive stepfather. How Calvin got into the Bolduc facility is craftily revealed only at the very end.

“Blue Summer” is not “Jane Eyre,” but it’s a really good book. Even beyond my personal affinities, I think. It shares a lot of characteristics with the stories of Farmington author Bill Roorbach, if you want something to compare it to.

Jim Nichols attended the University of Southern Maine about the same time I did (though we did not, as far as I remember, cross paths), and now lives in Warren and Santa Fe, New Mexico. His other books include “Closer All The Time”(also set in Baxter), “Hull Creek”  and “Slow Monkeys and Other Stories.” “Blue Summer” is available through local and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at universe@dwildepress.net.

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