Summer of Light
It's about the worst thing that can happen to a construction worker --- a freak accident that exposes an alleged safety hazard. For Mick Brannigan, an ironworker who thrives on "high steel," the accident stops his reliable routine in its tracks. But it's not his relatively minor injury that shakes up his world; instead, it's the loss of his job. The project manager can't risk another safety violation, and he fires Mick for gross negligence. To make matters worse, Mick's wife, Layne, begins pressuring him to stop looking for a job. Their four-year-old son, Dylan, needs constant supervision and a predictable routine; she reasons that her job in a law office could support the family, and Mick could stay at home with Dylan and their two school-age children.
For a man whose identity is wrapped up in his job, and whose father bailed on his family when he was a child, the idea of not being the provider does not sit well with Mick. But Layne's arguments eventually win out. He concedes that her plan makes sense, and he agrees to become a stay-at-home dad --- for a while. He used to manage a crew of tough construction workers on high-rise buildings. How hard could it be?
While that premise makes for some pretty funny scenarios, the heart of the book is the profound transformation of a man and his family. That transformation results in part from the unfamiliar situations that Mick is confronted with, but the greatest catalysts for change are the people in his life. W. Dale Cramer is a master at drawing believable, authentic male characters, and he gives every man in Mick's life the same attention to detail that he gives to Mick. The Man with No Hands, a homeless man whose intellectual insights "send everyone's wackometer into the red zone"; the eccentric neighbor Hap on one side and perfectionist neighbor Aubrey on the other; the construction workers; the residents of Overpass Plantation, a homeless community --- Cramer created each character with precision and care. And the women and children hardly get short shrift; Layne, her sister, the children, and even the dog have strong, finely developed personalities that have a distinctive impact on Mick.
Anyone who figures that Dale Cramer is a couple of books overdue for the inevitable sophomore jinx may as well give up. SUMMER OF LIGHT is his fourth book, and it's every bit as captivating as the previous three --- maybe even more so. With some authors, you can figure on reading only a few pages or a chapter to see if it's worth it. Not so with Cramer. His storytelling is so compelling, his writing style so exquisite that the reader doesn't stand a chance. He makes you resent your need to sleep and work and live a normal life; all you want to do is keep reading.
What sets Cramer apart as an author is his apparent insistence on strengthening every element of his novels to the max. There just aren't any weaknesses. As always, his characters are the people we see everyday, the people we know, the people who actually live and breathe and populate our communities. The dialogue reflects conversations you've heard and participated in. The story rings true. The imagery is nothing short of magnificent. And the ending is, as always, just right.
SUMMER OF LIGHT is a warm, engaging book --- and, like all of Cramer's novels, a rarity in contemporary fiction: a novel that will appeal to men without sacrificing the interest of female readers.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on February 1, 2007