Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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The Pumping Company is one of those bars that, at a certain hour, becomes a college bar, but earlier is a mix of alcoholics and working folks, people coming in alone to stare at the televisions or in pairs to complain about their jobs, or alone to get drinks bought for them or alone to complain about the jobs they’re currently on-shift at, down Broadway. Older people come in on dates, ordering the rancid pasta dishes. Younger people pre-drink with their cell phones in their hands, waiting for the real event, somewhere else.
But sometimes, despite the divide, moments of community occur. Everyone was real concerned about that one cocktail waitress’s bad sunburn, wanted to hear, again, the story of how it happened and what she was rubbing on it in the meantime. During Halstead Market Days, where that booth gives out free vibrators, daytime regulars took turns giving each other back rubs and arguing in a friendly manner about the movie The Last Starfighter. And on Tuesdays there’s Trivia Night, which nicely splits the crowd into new demographics: those who come for Trivia and those who think it’s stupid.
The recent memory that sticks with me, however, is of being there on one of the rainy, cold, Chicago evenings when the day crowd didn’t want to leave and the after-work crowd was wet and grumpy and the night crowd was wishing they had some place better to head. But everyone was there: the woman in her fifties who keeps her purse in her lap, flirting with the guy who runs his construction crews from a laptop, the Islander with his dreds who always tries to start conversations by asking rhetorical questions rooted in his knowledge of the deep history of whatever team is on the TV, some couple at a table along the wall making eyes with each other over one of the rancid pasta dishes, and me and one of the drunk guys and one of the drunk women and one of the really old drunk guys who occasionally says something but it’s not clear what and who gets angry if the bartender asks if he wants another drink. Then the radio, set to one of those curated satellite stations, comes in with the “Macarena,” and the gorgeous new bitchy brunette waitress, who usually spends her shift texting back by the window to the kitchen or flirting with the bartender who is not the bartender she is dating, suddenly lets out a sort of whoop and comes to the free space by the bathrooms and starts to do the dance, all its moves, singing along, and everyone—everyone—is watching. She does the hands and the elbows and the hips, and everyone is smiling and laughing and she is laughing and some of the older folks are singing along, urging her to do more, and she says, “We had to learn that in, like, fourth grade,” and a pallor of reality descends upon the place, first in the form of a long low whistle from the Islander, who lowers his head, his face disappearing behind a wall of dreds. Only the very old man keeps staring at her, as she composes herself and checks her phone, remembering that it is her job to ignore the customers here.
The question “remember the Macarena?” comes up in Gabe Durham’s funny-true book, too. Part of what Fun Camp is most painfully and persuasively about is that gap between the young and the old, between youth and whatever comes after, between expectation with all its roiling fear and overblown fantasy and experience with all its disappointments, disillusionment, and accumulating despair. Told in short, flash fiction-type pieces, from a variety of perspectives—letters from a camper to his mother, reflections from counselors about camp design and rules—Fun Camp presents the passage from child through adolescence and into adulthood over the course of a week at camp, from the terror of leaving home to the sweaty desire to make out and make romance to the different, more mature terror—masked as it necessarily is—of a grown-up looking back on the journey. “Because I can tell you why certain movies are good with words you’d use wrong,” an adult says, as justification for why campers should listen to him; more poignantly, he adds “Because I know tricks for keeping myself from crying.”
While campers struggle with the experience of waking up in an unfamiliar bed or pass the time yearning to be kissed or, in one instance, having ended up at the wrong camp, assuming all the other campers are also terminally ill, the counselors ponder questions like “At what age is it appropriate to stop dreaming of the year I sweep the Nobels, and really hunker down and specialize on the talent that’s gonna win me international acclaim and sex?” or “the rule on campers soliciting curly locks from loved counselors.” Campers see their time at camp as a flood of new experiences—Knots! Mashed potatoes mixed with chili!—counselors see everything in the blood-drenched light of allegory: “Tetherball as metaphor for marriage, flooding lake as the unconscious, the muddy soccer field as the state of our two-party system, camper restlessness as childhood,” etc. This restlessness becomes a source of cynicism:
Human restlessness is such that I could slide open the door to the church Econoline and shout, “Who wants to drive around with busted AC looking for a no-ethanol gas station?” or “Who wants to go get free examinations from the unlicensed proctologist?” or “Who’s ready to try that burger place in town that replaces the buns with chunky peanut butter?” and still I’d fill the van and leave a hoard of angry dust-kickers in my wake.
As does the role of humor at the camp, which counselors attempt to control and theorize. Campers collect laxatives and itching powder from the prank truck like counselors long for “Some kind of gong to bang when a skit’s got to stop,” when, presumably, it’s no longer clean. “Camp jokes are too literal, too physical, too sticky for my taste,” one voice muses, while another laments that campers aren’t attuned to contemporary trends in stand-up.
The physical, the sticky: from choking games to T-shirts soaked by squirt gun, speculation about cup size on “budding girls,” the development of pubic hair, and the idea of birth control—these become, for the counselors, for the formerly but not so recently young, sources of disgust yet also abject fascination. Ice breakers dissolve into sexual fantasies, observations are tinged with envy. That the skits center on absurd moral lessons is worthy of derision—“All school shootings would have been prevented had the shooters gone to Fun Camp” or “A beer sip and you’re blitzed”—but that they contain a kernel of truth only applicable to the world of the campers is, from the point of view of the counselors, like salt in a wound. “Girls Cabin 2 will make out with anybody,” for instance, is a shibboleth from which the adults are excluded. Adulthood, in these pages, comes at the price of wonder. Patterns and pedagogies and advanced vocabularies come to replace the infinite awe that comes with all the fear and uncertainty of youth. But those patterns and pedagogies and advanced vocabularies are part and parcel of new, more elaborate, varieties of fear and uncertainty.
The book is divided into days of the week, chronicling the passage of time, which allows Durham to emphasize the suggestion that happiness happens most in hindsight, only after the moment has passed. After which we are tossed back into the world, building up a defense of regret and denial. Such defenses have their chinks, of course, and maybe the tune of the “Macarena,” its silly choreography, opens an individual up to the possibility of being pierced by a memory of the past, by visceral recognition of the past’s pastness. Someone young—someone suddenly recognized as so much shockingly younger—does a parody of something you did, years and years ago. And you see your life, not through a glass darkly, but face to face. You are no longer a child. Might as well order another shot, wait for the weather to break, look away from everyone else, watch whatever slow sport is on the television.
Official Gabe Durham Web Site
Official Publishing Genius Web Site