(Publishing Genius, 2013)
A bristling yet alluring doohickey, ostensibly about a week away from the workaday world, Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp also signals the end for one of American publishing’s finest escapes from the ordinary. This slim text was to be the spring title for Mud Luscious Press, yet it’s appearing instead from Publishing Genius. Mud Luscious is no more, though its list included some of the sweetest anomalies in recent fiction. Happily, though, Fun Camp, even under a different logo, concludes the press’s fireworks appropriately, with a multicolor sky-splash eliciting gasps and chuckles.
Durham’s comedy suggests the Arts’n’Craft project of some camper suffering serious sleep deprivation, a nutso assemblage—though the text soon reveals its organization. Bundles of page-long bursts of prose (a few running longer) are sorted into “Monday” through “Sunday.” Recurrent elements develop as well, and one can make out the faint model of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), with its reiterative motifs and numbers in place of story. Fun Camp features a “Dear Mom” letter every day, for instance, and regular “Warm Fuzzy” notes, which one imagines turning up in a camper’s mailbox. But God help the guy (“Scott,” in this case) who receives such a warm fuzzy: “Don’t get the wrong idea—I’m not being flirtatious. Sometimes guys who don’t get a lot of warm fuzzies read too much into the warm fuzzies they do get. Truth is, half your cabinmates are about to get warm fuzzies from me, including the three guys I’m actually interested in.”
Many of Durham’s jokes take this form, cutting your heart out straight-faced. So too, camp activities often fall short of what you’d call fun, and the sense of place remains fractured. There’s a lake and a woods, but the swims seem mostly about showing off young bodies, and as for the lore of the woods: “I’m versed in pastoral instruction: Leaves of three? Let me see. A hairy vine is a friend of mine. Side leaves like mittens? Pet them like kittens.”
The cracked first person, as in the case of this disastrous counselor, rules. Nearly every page presents a monologue: teacherly as above, or heart-to-heart as in the Warm Fuzzy, and every once in a while more subdued, interior: “All around in the post-rain everywhere, such rich material for the counselor of letters: Tetherball as a metaphor for marriage, ...camper restlessness as childhood, ...the sight of Sandra running in the rain as desire.”
Now, this passage, “The Quiet Cabin,” would stand apart in a more conventional text. The voice here is that of the writer, isn’t it, “the counselor of letters”? Fun Camp however accords no special honors to its artist-figure. Rather, this dreamer emerges as just another horny hetero, and lonely, and his page too ends with a joke, rueful, self-conscious. The last metaphor that occurs to him is about metaphors, central to storytelling: “projection as a comfort.” Ah, but that comfort registers “less and less, these days.”
In other cabins, or out in the wild, the free association goes further—over the moon. The first days of the week, I particularly enjoyed the “Ice Breaker,” each posing a problem for some newbie to solve. But what camper, old or new, could deal with a high school locker “full of love letters from the assistant principal,” or with “the pitiful cries of the man you drugged and locked in your bathroom?” Then there are the outbursts from Grogg the cook, whenever he “corners a camper.” Each blows up into a tour de force, just this side of comprehensible: “Concocting as to the present of outfromers in the habitat beyond, I say to you yes and surely.”
It’s inspired nonsense, in the best passages, and I’ve provided only a small sampling. Still, Fun Camp offers more than the madcap. Durham reins in his anarchy with insight concerning the pecking order among the young and nubile. That order is rooted in looks to be sure, but also in who’s “got it going on,” a mystery into which a number of campers are initiated, one way or another. Thus the coming-of-age, that hoary old topos, shows up in freaky makeover. Indeed, can’t the Ice Breakers be read as carnival equivalents to the baffling choices presented by adult life? As for sexual initiation, that’s part of many a comic turn. I especially like how one girl exemplifies our crabwise scuttle towards the primal: “I’m simply saying that if Tad Gunnick [the camp stud] took me on a nature stroll, and told me that, frankly, clothes have always been a pet peeve of his, I’d do what I could not to bother him.”
So frisky an attitude towards getting naked feels welcome in a fictional experiment. More commonly these days, younger American writers who eschew narrative tend to abstain in their fiction, as well, from pleasures of the flesh. The lust that drove Donald Barthelme, to name just one, raises nary a peep. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say—but Seinfeld would be the first to see the implicit story, the setup and punchline, in lascivious impulses. It’s great to have Gabe Durham give those impulses fresh play, on a midsummer’s night in the woods.