Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Christmas in July

By Alan Michael Parker

Reviewed By Amanda Moger Rettig

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Alan Michael Parker’s Christmas in July is the rare book that requires pause mid-book to savor the experience. Parker manages to elevate the everyday to poetry while also offering a clear-eyed critique of the self-deceptions we humans use to justify our actions.

The most original quality of this book is its structure. It is subtitled “a novel,” however that does not give the full picture because the book is not a novel in the traditional sense. Each chapter in Christmas in July is actually a separate self-contained story. There is only one character who could be considered the protagonist for the overall book, a girl named Christmas. But Christmas only appears by reference in some stories and even in those where she plays a bigger role, she is only a supporting character. More importantly, while Christmas is a teenager facing imminent and tragic death because of a cancer diagnosis, the reader can only care about this sad situation in a removed way. The lives of all the other characters are told with greater intimacy and urgency. Thus, Christmas feels more like a motif than a protagonist, and the other characters, whose stories are told from their own points of view, feel like the centers of their own stories.

But even if Christmas in July is not a novel, to call Parker’s book a collection of linked stories would not be quite right either; although each chapter stands alone, it is undeniable that each one builds on the previous to show the effect of a dying teenager on the world, and one small town in particular. Thus, this is really a hybrid work, telling a tale by telling the story of everything else around it, leaving the reader to infer from the rhetorical empty space the narrative of a town (and beyond) with a dying teenager careening through it, and how the current or future absence of this teenager does, or will matter. Thus, the overarching tale is told in the interstitial space, between an aggregation of details that allows for a progression of understanding of what is not seen and not said. From the first page, there is no question that the literal finish for the action of Parker’s book is that Christmas dies, so the narrative drive of the book only comes from the reader’s evolving understanding of other more intangible things.

This tale by inference makes for an unusual reading experience, but it is not just the structure that makes Christmas in July so engrossing. Each chapter of the book tells with excruciating specificity the story of a new character that has a universal quality, yet is painted with fascinatingly unique details: the school administrator faced with a midlife crisis who fixates on her paramour’s mustache (“Hello. This Is Your Mother”), the aging widower trying to limp through a retail job who prefers history to the present (“War”), the senior softball league wife who fills her time with exaggerated crafts (“Meg’s Team”), the man trying not to hate a mother descended into Alzheimer’s by imagining a replacement relationship with his backyard deer (“My Beauty”), the gas station attendant desperate to believe he has a genius beyond his function and thus he formulates long con schemes involving harmless but petty revenge with fireworks (“Fireworks”), and many other similarly quirky stories. With well-chosen details, each character is utterly believable and each is simultaneously horrible and lovable. Moreover, as the reader lives with each character, the attributes that at first seem to be extreme quirks—(a desire to be painted with glitter (“Glitter”), a commitment to a blog identity of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz (“Dear Dorothy”), a belief that bees are mind readers (“Blue the Dog”)—instead become ever more understandable as stand-ins for qualities that are more recognizable so that readers will see versions of their own needs, insecurities, coping mechanisms, and hopes in these characters. In these chapters the strange becomes familiar and identifiable by almost imperceptibly incremental steps.

Similarly, the action of this book shows Parker’s genius for subtlety. It is, for the most part, the examination of banal peril. The stories do contain a few unusual events—the affair of the married woman, an armed cult, a brother who died leaving his daughter to be raised by a junky mother, and a rich girl who alludes to enjoying various luxuries—but these are the exceptions, and most of these events happen outside the narrative time of the book and thus only get passing references. Almost everything that happens in this book is incredibly everyday, small town, and deeply ordinary. It is the patient examination of average people’s problems elevated with such empathy that makes this book so enjoyable. And again, it is the pleasure of recognition that gives the reader a sense of justification and absolution for his or her own ordinary life.

For example, in “War,” the protagonist, a man who is alone because his wife and friends have already died, who keeps himself busy by working at a hardware store even though he is past the age of retirement, is worried that the strange girl (Christmas), who has come into the store without addressing him, is there to shoplift and then hurt him and all of his coworkers with her large knife. He arrives at this conclusion (and then his fear persuades his co-workers of the danger) mainly because the girl is so out of place. In this telling, Parker manages to make the reader feel not only utterly present in the moment, and completely understanding of the old man’s panic, but also that it is equally believable that the nineteen-year-old immigrant employee will also be so scared that he will reveal his darkest family secret just to get it off his chest, and that other people working at the store, who generally do not like the old man, will draw close to him. In short, the feeling that they are all at a crossroads is very tangible. So, too, is the relief that the man and his three coworkers feel when danger has passed with Christmas’s departure from the store. And the fact that they all laugh together and are unable to stop feels utterly natural. Parker makes all these details feel understandable to the reader even though all that actually happened was a skinny girl wearing a winter hat in summer walked into a hardware store with a knife in her waistband and then walked out again.

Similarly, in “Glitter,” a rich young woman finds purpose in truly and unapologetically being herself. That self is rather small in that all it requires for completeness and satisfaction is for the woman to spray herself with glitter body paint and go out that way. But not only is that the perfect metaphor for every person who wants to live as he or she chooses, the story validates all such choices by elevating even this modest desire of a very self-absorbed rich girl to the level of a purpose worth pursuing. The story follows the protagonist, Evie Glitter, through the final stages of planning a glitter festival at which she intends to personally “come out” about her glitter lifestyle. We see what she believes is her personal ghost (more likely one or more accidental encounters with Christmas)—a shallow attempt to examine her own life by talking to this ghost and guessing its motives. Accidentally, and in spite of herself, Evie manages to stumble into some form of self-knowledge that permits her transformation from someone who has everything but is unable to speak publicly without becoming pathologically paranoid that her hair looks bad, to someone who finds her voice, and a comfort with herself. And if Evie, with all her superficiality and pettiness, can pull herself up, the story implies that there is hope for us all, no matter what lesser qualities each of us harbors.

As these examples show, Parker ably brings us close to the beauty and meaning in ordinary people and simple lives. This makes for a book that is at times, tiring to read—there is significant mental effort needed to process the denseness of Parker’s portraits of the work of living, and not every story in this book will resonate with every reader, but ultimately Christmas in July is extremely rewarding and vastly entertaining. It is fitting to think of this book the way Evie Glitter thinks of a transcendent experience in a bar: “I love when the moment is all for me, even with each of those other people hogging it, when the music gets life right and the bar’s smelly in the best worst way.” Christmas in July will make you feel the moment is all for you, that it gets life right, and that every story it brings to life is smelly in the best worst way.

 

Amanda Moger Rettig is a writer living outside of Boston with her husband and three children.