PUBLISHED IN: 2014
THE AUTHOR: Paul Castellani.
THE EDITOR: My wife, who has professional experience as an editor.
THE PUBLISHER: North Country Books. Utica, N.Y., 1-800-342-7409, http://www.northcountrybooks.com.
SUMMARY: A teenager’s testimony about a homicide rips apart an Adirondack resort town.
It’s only a month into the summer of 1958, and 17-year old Kevin Boyle is already in trouble with an older girl. And a priest who’s zeroing in on Communists and degenerate books in the library is way too interested in his sex life. When he thinks nothing else can go wrong he sees his best friend’s brother shove a tourist to his death at a lakeside hangout. Or did he?
By the time the coroner’s inquest comes around, half the town thinks he’s caused the drop in tourism. The other half thinks he’s mixed up with the suspect librarian, and his friends are sure he’s sold out to the lawyer who’s dangling a college scholarship and loan to his financially-strapped parents for the right testimony. Whatever Kevin says at the inquest will change his life.
Set in an Adirondack resort town, Sputnik Summer is a story of what happens when simmering tensions between tourists and the folks who rent to and wait on them every summer boil over. Dramatic events force characters to question whether they can trust their friends. What secrets could ruin their lives if revealed? What lies will they tell to get what they want?
THE BACK STORY: Sputnik Summer is my second novel. The first is safely locked in a bottom drawer. When I thought about what next, I realized the germ of Sputnik Summer had been in my head for years. It was the memory of a tourist-townie baseball game in the 1950s that ended badly that set me writing the novel. I played on the townie side in a game not unlike the one in the novel. It was a one-off, not an annual event as in the novel, but it ended in an obscenity-laced fist fight between a kid I was palling around with and a tourist. There I was standing on the margin, the son of the owner of a cottage colony, watching my summer pal (whose single mother was a waitress) cursing the tourists, who were “demographically” closer to me than I was to my pal. I remember being confused, disconcerted. My pal was clearly out of line, but he was my pal. The memory ambushed me on and off for fifty years. Finally, I decided that there was the core of a novel in
that time and that setting. I started Sputnik Summer “in the middle” with that pivotal episode and wrote up to it and then its aftermath.
I’ve always been interested in people on the margins: people trying to move up; people trying to keep from falling back; and people caught in between. So, I think about characters and situations in which this struggle on the margins is central to the story.
The protagonist in Sputnik Summer, Kevin Boyle, is seventeen years old, so he’s coming of age – coping with the challenge of becoming an adult. He wants to move out of his small town. And in his desire for more excitement in his last summer in Hawk Cove, he leaves his college-bound friends behind and joins the town’s faster crowd. Running a resort and having the stability of his father’s teaching job puts Kevin’s family a little farther up the ladder than many others in Hawk Cove, especially those who scrabble to get in the twenty weeks that qualify them for unemployment checks that will carry them through the winter. And in every resort town, there is an underlying tension between the “natives” who rent to, wait on – and often resent – the tourists who take over their town every summer. All of these are problems of being on the margins and moving from one situation to another – and they all spell trouble for Kevin.
I also did a lot of research on the 1950s, not relying solely on my memory of growing up at that time. The chapters of Sputnik Summer are days of the week: Sunday, July 13, for example. When I began to place the story in a time as well as a place, I realized that 1958 was a year with so many world-shaking events, I scarcely could imagine why so many think of the 1950s as a bland. Between May, 1958 and Labor Day:
The Soviet Union launched its third Sputnik on a huge rocket with ICBM capability.
The French Fourth Republic fell, and General Charles De Gaulle assumed power.
Vice-President Nixon’s motorcade was stoned in Venezuela.
In May, 69 people were killed in one of several airline disasters that year.
Communists scored big election gains in Italy and Finland.
A civil war raged in Lebanon, and President Eisenhower sent in the Marines.
Turkey invaded and occupied half of Cyrus.
Governor Orville Faubus and President Eisenhower were battling in court over the integration of public schools in Little Rock.
The Soviets pulled out of negotiations in Geneva over Atomic Bomb talks.
The Iraq government was overthrown in a Nassar-backed coup.
Castro’s rebels were kidnapping Americans and on the verge of taking power in Cuba.
And that was all before Labor Day.
Even though the characters in Sputnik Summer live in a small town in the Adirondacks and visit from surrounding cities, they are obviously aware of these events from newspapers, radios, and television news. I didn’t want to shoe-horn these events into the story. So, the headers of each chapter are New York Times headlines from that date. I wanted them to create a tone, a sense, a feeling of the tenor of the times.
I also wanted to capture some of the cultural history. Hula Hoops. Elvis. Father Knows Best. The Millionaire. The Beats. The Communist threat. Get rich schemes on matchbooks. Hot Rods. I picked up a number of popular magazines from 1958 and used quotes from them for sub-headings. Which Twin Has the Tony; See the USA in Your Chevrolet; Learn Accounting at Home.
It took a little over three years to write Sputnik Summer.
WHY THIS TITLE: It’s a coming of age story that takes place during a summer in the Adirondacks, so “Summer” was easy. I chose Sputnik to capture the time – the 1950s and the Cold War. And there’s a scene in the book where a dock sinks under the weight of too many people trying to spot Sputnik III tracing across the sky.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT?: Sputnik Summer is unique because it captures a time and place in which fully-realized, and often flawed, characters deal with realistic and important issues. I want readers to feel they’ve read a good story. I try to make my characters as complex and engaging as possible, but for me telling a good story is the primary objective. Beyond that, I think the core problems of friendship, loyalty, deception, ambition, and deciding who you are going to become are timeless, and I hope I provide a unique and engaging perspective on them. And, I hope within the context of a good story, Sputnik Summer takes on the issues of sexual abuse, the place of gay people in society, and the tensions between the diverse groups in a resort town in 1958. What’s the same? What’s different? And I’ve attended many readings and book discussions where readers surprise the author with what they’ve taken away from the novel.
EXCERPTS FROM REVIEWS:
“We read fiction to learn and remember what we used to know, at least partly. This book is a lovely depiction of growing up in the 50’s, primarily from a boy’s POV. Because the author and I are contemporaries, I can attest to its characters’ truth and confusion. And boy, are there characters. Each real, yet also representative of a distinct group.
Evocative is a term which describes the book. Warm-hearted, poignant, sharp in its characterizations and forgiving in all the right places. If you grew up then, you will smile fondly at the classic situations and longings. If you did not, then I bet your adolescence was not much different if you had even the smallest part of self-consciousness. Then or perhaps now.
Reading the book will be time well spent. “ — Amazon reader Judge Roberto.
“Sputnik Summer is an entertaining beach read…” — Betsy Kepes, North Country Public Radio.
“Castellani is a strong writer and captures the feel of the Adirondacks in the summer.” — John Rowen in The Sunday (Schenectady) Gazette
“Sex, violence and anti-communist hysteria in a 1958 Adirondack town makes for a good novel.” — Jerry McGovern in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise
AUTHOR PROFILE: Paul Castellani is a writer, teacher, and researcher. He has done research on the funding and delivery of services to people with mental disabilities and taught courses in public policy and administration at the Rockefeller College at SUNY-Albany and other universities in the US and abroad. In addition to a number of articles and chapters on public policy, he is the author of two books. The most recent is From Snake Pits to Cash Cows: Politics and Public Institutions in New York (SUNY Press). He has also written fiction for many years. Sputnik Summer, which draws on his experience growing up in the Adirondacks in the 1950s, is his first published novel. For more about the book and its background see http://paulcastellani.com/about/
AUTHOR COMMENTS: An interviewer asked me what I want readers to take away from Sputnik Summer.
First and foremost, I want them to feel they’ve read a good story. I try to make my characters as complex and engaging as possible, but for me telling a good story is the primary objective. Beyond that, I think the core problems of friendship, loyalty, deception, ambition, and deciding who you are going to become are timeless, and I hope I provide a unique and engaging perspective on them. And, I hope within the context of a good story, Sputnik Summer takes on the issues of sexual abuse, the place of gay people in society, and the tensions between the diverse groups in a resort town in 1958. What’s the same? What’s different? And I’ve attended many readings and book discussions where readers surprise the author with what they’ve taken away from the novel.
Following is the first chapter of Sputnik Summer
Wednesday June 25, 1958
VANGUARD FAILS TO PUT SATELLITE INTO ORBIT
‘52 DeSoto. $75. Needs Work. Will Dicker.
One thousand, two hundred and twenty miles under the orbit of Sputnik, Kevin Boyle tracked the route of a fisherman trolling for trout on Uncas Lake. At Byrd’s Seaplane Rides and Marina, a half-filled windsock drooped. It was dead quiet. But hidden by a thick cover of hemlock the residents of Hawk Cove hurried to complete their final preparations in the countdown to Saturday when carloads of tourists would fill freshly-scrubbed cottages and take their first splash in the lake before fanning out to the gift shops to buy balsam-stuffed pillows and rubber-tipped tomahawks.
On the first day of the season, the beach at Iroquois Lodge would ring with shouts of brothers cannon-balling off the dock at shrieking sisters, mothers calling to toddlers to be careful, and the slap of water skis jumping the wake. Until Labor Day, Kevin would have to act as though every guest staying at the Lodge was his best friend or favorite aunt and uncle. And every night after supper, he would have to pull his cart behind their cottages and collect the trash barrels that stank of rotting corncobs, coffee grounds, and watermelon rinds. They were on vacation, he was the help.
This was going to be his last summer in Hawk Cove. He’d help his parents prep the Lodge next June then leave town for a job and a room near the college he’d be going to. But he had to do something this summer besides watching traffic from the steps of the Red & White. It was either a re-run of last year with his old friends – or the Rock. He couldn’t wait until next year to shake up his life. He’d been wondering how he was going to pull it off when yesterday afternoon Buck Duncan appeared like a lucky charm.
Kevin had joined the pack around Jimmie Nelson’s ’52 Mercury in the town hall parking lot. He was leaning under the hood when Buck slid in next to him and slapped him on the back. Kevin was sure Buck was going to try to get into the Rock. His older brother hung out there before taking off to Star Lake.
Jimmie pulled the throttle arm under the four-barrel and slammed down the hood muttering, “Thanks,” when Kevin said, “Smokin’ wheels, Jimmie.”
As they watched the Merc lay a strip of rubber out the entrance, Kevin said, “Jimmie’s our ticket into the Rock.”
Buck stepped back to look Kevin over. “I didn’t figure you for the Rock.”
At the Rock, guys parked their cars and drank beer around beach fires with girls whose parents didn’t know or didn’t care. At the Rock, guys took dares to dive far enough off the top to miss the outcropping of boulders at the base and knife into the black water. At the end of every June, kids hoping to join that crowd lurked at the edge of the clearing until the guys in charge either told them to beat it or let them in to serve their probation, keeping their mouths shut, not laughing too loudly at the dirty jokes, and being in the right spot when one of the girls needed a light or a guy wanted another beer.
Kevin was sick of being easily figured out. “Tomorrow night. Seven. Wait at the end of my driveway,” he’d told Buck.
“Let’s break for lunch,” Kevin’s father called from the front steps of Cayuga.
Kevin grabbed the broom he’d been using to sweep the screened porch of Oneida. The six cottages at Iroquois Lodge were almost ready for the families from Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester who would rent them for one or two weeks. Twenty-two mattresses laid on dusted springs; eighty-seven windows washed; six toilet bowls scoured; dozens of screens brushed; hundreds of dishes, glasses, cups, knives, forks, and spoons washed. Could his father think of anything else that had to be done before Saturday? Bet on it, he thought as he saw his father heading toward the Longhouse at the top of the triangle of the cottages.
Everything was going to be double time for the next two days. Falling in behind his father, Kevin watched his head swivel as he went through an inspection of the grounds. Badminton net inspected for rips? Check. Rackets and shuttlecocks in their racks? Check. Horseshoes cleaned? Check. Firewood stacked under the tarp next to the fire pit? Kevin had made absolutely sure nothing was going to keep him from slipping out the door after supper.
Kevin turned from making sure the picnic tables he’d wiped down that morning would pass muster and almost ran up the back of his father’s legs. He’d come to a dead stop and was staring at his mother standing on the steps of the Longhouse waving a letter.
His father dropped the bottle of window cleaner in a bucket and snatched it from her hand. “How can the Barkers cancel? They’re supposed to be here next Saturday.” He turned the letter over as though there might be some explanation on the back. “They’ve been renting Seneca since fifty-one.”
“That’s what it says.” She shrugged. “Lunch is on the table.”
“How can I eat?” He grabbed the bucket and stomped off to the workshop.
Kevin knew his father was already cooking up one of his projects magically guaranteed to solve any predicament. “Want me to help?”
“Go have lunch.”
After hastily eating, Kevin figured he’d better help his father with whatever scheme he was concocting to make up for the Barkers’ stab in the back.
The second Kevin stepped into the workshop, his father said, “We’ve got to get this diving board back on the dock. Steady the end while I see if I can drill out these stripped screws.”
Seeing the old diving board that had been leaning against the back wall of the storeroom for two years now on the workbench surprised Kevin. His father kept the bench as clean as an operating table, and the moldy diving board was shedding burlap dust all over the place.
“You said we weren’t going to put this back on the dock,” Kevin said. “Remember, right after that Anderson kid broke his wrist?”
“Horsing around. Lucky we didn’t get sued. And I hear Indian Point Cottages put in two new boards.”
Kevin’s father took a drill from the peg board. Each drawer of the racks next to its ghost outline was labeled with punch tape: blue for every type of screw; red for the nails. Green labels read: Drill bits – up to ½; Yellow for Drill bits – less than ½. The whole workshop was one of his father’s life lessons: A place for everything, and everything in its place.
As his father inspected a bit before slipping it into the drill, Kevin switched on the portable radio perched on the windowsill. Fiddling with the dial, he finally picked up the top 40s on WSYR. The kids from Syracuse who stayed at the Lodge said he was the luckiest guy in the world to live in the middle of the Adirondacks. But how would they like to be stuck in a town where everybody knew if you blew a fart and every song came in with static?
“I can’t think with that rock and roll blaring,” his father said.
Kevin poked at the tattered burlap. “Probably a million dried cooties in there. Just add water, and it’ll be like the movie with the fire ants that ate those guys in the jungle.”
“Our people catch wind of the new high-dive board at the Point, and we’ll have more cancellations. Damn it! I told you to hold the end. Now I’ve snapped off the bit, and I don’t know if I’ve got another three-eighths.”
The news came on. Kevin’s father shook his head. “The Ruskies launch a satellite bigger than a Lincoln Continental, and we can’t get a grapefruit off Cape Canaveral.”
“That wasn’t my fault either.”
“Why do you think our rockets go up fifty feet and topple over like a drunk falling off a barstool? Somebody left a broken-off drill bit in a vital part. A too-smart Clarkson engineer forgot to turn off a valve. Everything counts, Kevin. Little things add up.”
“Cripes, Dad, I’m going to get a brain tumor worrying about somebody falling off our diving board and suing us.”
“You’re right about the burlap. I want you to strip it off and sand the board. You get to it after supper, and you can shellac it tomorrow afternoon. That way we can get new burlap on before Saturday. No matter how many times I tell people that check-in is at two, somebody always comes early.”
“Don’t I get a night off?”
“Help me flip this over.”
“Dad, I’ll get up early and start sanding. This will be the best diving board in the entire Adirondacks. But tonight, I’ve got to get out.”
After supper, Kevin finished putting away the dishes and read the newspaper at the kitchen table as he waited for his parents to settle down. At ten minutes to seven, he quietly stood against the frame of the door between the kitchen and the living room. Beyond the Franklin stove on his right, his father sat at a roll-top desk pulling out drawers, aligning papers into neat piles, and checking the sharpness of the dozen number two pencils sticking out of a jar. His mother was opening a jig-saw puzzle at the card table under the hanging lamp. “I’m going to lay out what I need to refinish the diving board early tomorrow morning and then head up to town for a few minutes,” he
said in an after-thought tone he hoped wouldn’t set off his father’s where to? and who with? alarm. He was definitely going to the Rock, but he didn’t want to have an argument about it. He grabbed his jacket off the peg next to the door to the porch.
Kevin’s father looked up. “Where are you going?”
“Out.” Kevin waved to a blank space between his mother and father. “You said it was okay.”
What about the….?”
“Good night, Dad, Mom,” Kevin said as he headed out the door. “I know, Behave yourself,” he and his father said at the same time.
Fifteen minutes later, walking backwards along Spruce Road and waving his arms at Kevin, Buck continued his story. “And then he says, ‘You think your shit don’t stink.’ And you know, Kev, I had one of those moments when the bulb goes off. Does everybody’s shit stink? Or does it stink different – like over there in China, where all they eat is rice or a hunk of dog? And how come it stinks anyway? You eat a nice juicy steak, a baked potato. What do you get? Stinky shit. That’s a question they’d never ask Mr. Wizard. But I figured since you always get a hundred in science, I’d ask you. So what…”
“For chrissakes, Buck, you ever hear someone say, ‘Eat shit and die?”
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, Kevin thought. Buck’s a good guy. But every time one of his other friends caught him talking to Buck, they gave him a funny look. He noticed that Buck’s sideburns were already below the school’s mid-ear limit. Why did he have to choose sides? It’s summer. The rules changed.
“Yeah, I heard that.”
“Okay. Shit’s poison. If it tasted good, people might eat it – and die. So God made it stink so they wouldn’t.”
“I’m lucky to be friends with you, Kev.”
Checking out the Rock with Buck didn’t mean he joined the after-school-detention crowd. He caught a whiff of horse manure drifting in from the Cedar Island Boys Camp stable, one of a string of rich-kid summer camps in the area. He’d seen the trailers delivering the horses to the fenced-off stables last week. A lingering smell of black fly spray laid down by the town fogger still hung in the air.
At the end of the rutted tracks in the scruffy pines, Jimmie’s Merc and Chink Perrotti’s Hornet were pulled in front of a rough lean-to. As they reached the edge of the clearing, Buck said, “I hope they don’t pull a weird imitation rite on us. My brother told me they made one guy stay all night in the lean-to – naked, with honey rubbed all over him.”
Kevin had been thinking more about getting into the Rock, not what he’d do there. He imagined letting his other buddies at the town beach know that he was copasetic with the guys at the Rock. And maybe girls might find him more exciting than a guy they could count on to behave himself. “He was yanking your chain.”
“Could be, but I’d stay naked all night in the lean-to if they threw in one of the girls for company.” Buck swung his arm around Kevin’s shoulders. “We’d have to get real close to stay warm.”
Kevin pushed Buck’s arm away. “You’d be too busy slapping mosquitoes.”
Through the low-hanging branches, Kevin could make out a pit fire backlighting a clump of figures on the beach. From a portable radio, Chuck Berry cranked out, ‘Go, Johnny Go. Go, Go Johnny B. Goode.’ One of the guys yelled, “Who’s that?”
“It’s us – Buck Duncan and Kevin Boyle,” Buck shouted.
“Duncan and Boyle?” Jimmie called out to a chorus of snickers. “You get lost on your way home from the playground?”
He called us by name, Kevin thought. He listened: murmurs, a laugh, a beer bottle being chucked into the weeds.
Kevin nudged Buck, and they slowly treaded out of the bushes. They neared the fire, and he could feel the stares. But Kevin sauntered to the water’s edge like he did this every night.
In the flickering light, Kevin could make out Jimmie, Chink and three girls in battered lawn chairs clustered around the smoky fire. Twenty feet beyond, four guys he couldn’t identify were sitting on a log facing the lake.
Buck nodded in their direction. “I’m going to see if I know somebody over there and get some beer.”
The girl sitting across from Jimmie stood up and stretched. She strolled over to where Kevin was trying to act like he belonged there. “Hi, I’m Maxine.”
Maxine twirled a long-necked beer bottle in one hand. With the other she pushed back the blonde hair that slid over her face. He could tell she was older than him,
eighteen or even nineteen. And even in the dim light, he could see her nipples pushing like small corks through her tee-shirt.
“Kevin,” he said with a hitch in his voice.
“Don’t give yourself a headache trying to guess who I am. I just got into town. Jimmie’s cousin. His old man and mine are brothers.” Nodding in Jimmie’s direction, she said, “Mr. Manners ain’t going out of his way to make introductions, so I figured I’d better do it myself.” She stepped in so close to Kevin that he stumbled back.
Coughing and waving away smoke from the fire, Kevin said, “How long are you visiting the Nelsons?”
Maxine looked as though she was sizing him up. “The season. On Saturday, I start at the Acropolis in Inlet.”
Kevin straightened; tried to look taller. “Where from?” He glanced toward the cluster around the fire, feeling her eyes still on him.
“Outer space,” she laughed. “Minerva. Same thing.”
“It’s not like Hawk Cove is a real resort like Lake Placid.”
“Whether they were going to waitress in Placid or Lake George after senior year was like the most important decision my friends had to make.”
“Why didn’t you go?”
Maxine shrugged. “Mom thought I’d be better off here with Jimmie’s family.”
“Long story,” Maxine said. “Anyway, here I am. Jimmie’s fifth wheel.”
One of the guys huddled around the fire let out a long belch. “At least, Jimmie took you to Hawk Cove’s swanky spot.” Kevin stared at the front of Maxine’s tee-shirt as she tucked the beer bottle under her arm and fished around in the pocket of her Bermuda shorts.
“You ever see tits before?” Maxine said as she dug first in one then the other pocket. “I, ah….” Kevin stuttered, feeling a burn on the back of his neck.
“Forget it. Got a cigarette? Mine must have fallen out someplace.”
Kevin pointed to the dark shapes at the far end of the clearing. “My friend Buck’s got mine.”
“Sorry I ragged on you about checking out my you-know-whats.”
“It’s okay, I…”
“Don’t sweat it. I got to learn to act nicer. You Hawk Cove guys probably got more couth than the Minerva jerks.”
“It’s the water.”
Maxine gave Kevin a punch on the arm. “I like you. Want a swig?” She held out the bottle.
“Sure.” Kevin took a sip.
“I need a smoke. I’m going to bum a cigarette from Jimmie. Don’t run away on me.”
Kevin watched Maxine walk back to the fire. She told him not to run away, so maybe he didn’t sound like a total dork. What would he say when she came back? Jimmie and the others stood, and Maxine returned. “Jimmie’s hot to bug out. You want me to ask him if you can come?”
“Me? Ah… Jeez. Where? I mean…”
Maxine eyed Kevin. “Your choice.”
“That’d be great, but I promised some guys I’d meet them later. Next time. Here. The Acropolis. Around.”
“Sure thing, Ken. I’ll look up, and there’ll you be – scoping out my ba-zoom.”
“You never know,” Kevin said as coolly as he could manage. Could he be a guy who could get in a car and just go someplace with a girl who talked like that?
Maxine put her hand on Kevin’s shoulder. Leaning close to him, she said, “I don’t usually ask twice, so we’ll see what happens next time.” She squeezed his shoulder and let her hand drop. “Later, alligator.”
Maxine joined Chink and Jimmie’s girlfriend, Noel, on their way to the cars. Hearing a snort, Kevin turned and flinched. Jimmie was staring up at him with a murderous glare on his face. Jimmie scared Kevin. He scared everybody. It was as though Jimmie had started out at six-three and was mad as hell for being hammered into a five-seven bull-dog. With biceps like hams and a permanent I-dare-you-to-call-me-short sneer on his flat face, Jimmie looked as though he was about to pound him. “What’s with you and my cousin?”
“Jeez, Jimmie. I just said hello.”
“Just cause I didn’t kick your ass out of here tonight, don’t mean you’re top stud.”
“I didn’t think that, Jimmie. I was trying to be nice.”
Jimmie gave Kevin a head-to-toe sneering look. “If I was you, Boyle, I’d be careful who I was nice to.” He let out a barking laugh. “I don’t know whether to warn you off or watch you get your sorry ass in a sling. See you around – Kennie.”
Buck came up next to Kevin. “Who was the girl you were talking to?”
“What’d Jimmie say?”
“I’m not sure.”
LOCAL & OTHER OUTLETS FOR SPUTNIK SUMMER: Sputnik Summer is available in a large number of independent bookstores and book sellers in and around the Adirondacks. It’s also available in selected Barnes & Noble stores as well as through their on-line catalog — and, of course, on Amazon.
PRICE: $19.95Paperback – $4.99 Kindle.
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: paulcastellani.com