It’s appropriate to read Chris Kraus’s Summer of Hate in the middle of the winter. The novel is perfect for January and February, being very fast moving and set in warm places. And we, bombarded as we are this time of year by speeches on the state of our states and our union, are well prepared to receive it: Summer of Hate is a state of the union novel. There is a love story, sure. But real estate prospector/writer Catt Dunlop’s relationship with recovering addict/property manager Paul Garcia is not the novel’s core. It is, instead, the condition of America in the depths of the Bush years—economically, politically, and culturally. In the end, the choice to predicate Summer of Hate on the politics of its setting delivers a very good novel, if not a great one.
The book takes place in 2005 and 2006 and follows Catt and Paul, first on their individual trajectories and then, the duo having met, through the course of their relationship. It begins with Catt, 44, a cultural critic and teacher with a small and marginal following, on the run in Mexico from a man she met on a bondage website. Ostensibly he’s out to kill her. She returns, after a while, to her home in L.A., as the threat of the man from the website fades into the background, before moving on to Albuquerque. There she’s bought some vacant condos, and plans to refurbish and rent them—an enjoyable foray for Catt into the “real” world.
Then we’re introduced to Paul, 39, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who’s recently been paroled from prison. After earlier incarcerations for multiple DUIs, his most recent 16-month stint was for defrauding Halliburton, during a binge, of less than a thousand dollars. He moves to Albuquerque to escape his crack-smoking boss, where he’s hired by Catt to manage her rentals. Before long, they’re romantically involved.
The novel proceeds linearly once Catt and Paul’s backgrounds have been established. The prose is not beautiful—Kraus is not a stylist. But it is functional, and unobtrusive, and what it lacks in imagination it makes up for in sheer readability. It is nearly transparent. Frequent shifts in perspective, often sudden, from one of the leads to the other, and the occasional dips into minor characters—Tommy, a fraudulent accountant and blackmailer; Terry, a poet friend of Catt’s; Jerry, the self-medicating boss Paul flees to Albuquerque to escape—keep things interesting. The narrative swings deftly between them all, never losing momentum, and even the minor characters are fully, if briefly, realized.
It’s partly the dynamism of these characters that keeps the novel moving quickly. There are also dramatic tonal shifts throughout—something akin to channel surfing—though far from being stumbling blocks, they also propel the narrative. From the paranoid opening chapter, Catt’s flight from “her killer” (which draws heavily from thriller conventions), to a house flipping HGTV program, to a woeful prison tale, to a domestic drama and a legal procedural: the novel is all over the place, and that is a good part of the fun. Summer of Hate is engaged with a broad swath of the culture—it is “associative,” as Catt describes herself. “Without culture, the subject is isolate.” And in some ways—structurally, tonally—that associative bent works excellently.
The instances when Kraus’s associating involves the political are the novel’s weakest; unfortunate, because Summer of Hate aspires to the political. The list of topics touched on is a long one—extraordinary rendition, nationalism and xenophobia, illegal immigration, racial profiling, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, climate change, Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s famous pink underwear.
The references come fast and frequent, and the Bush-era outrage is palpable. But the novel never becomes involved in it. Concerns about the justice system, particularly with regard to class inequity, are central to the plot, but never fully investigated. Events simply happen, are observed and taken at their face. We learn that there are places in America where NPR broadcasts don’t reach. In those places, Fresh Air is supplanted by, predictably enough, Bible Talk. The places where you only get Bible Talk are bad, as are torture, the PATRIOT Act, the war in Iraq, and the massive post-9/11 proliferation of American flag lapel pins. Agreeing with these views doesn’t make them more interesting, or useful to this novel.
So it is unfortunate that Catt and Paul’s relationship is strung along by what purports to be, but is not, an indictment of the “prison-industrial complex.” The exploration of the class distinction, and its educational corollary, between Catt and Paul is, if not groundbreaking, wholly engaging. Particularly when coupled with nuanced portraits of life in A.A. and the strain that financial debt can place on interpersonal relations. But the nuance and the engagement come only in cultural contexts, and that limitation relegates Summer of Hate to the merely good.