By Gabe Durham


Publishing Genius
May 2013


Reviewed by Brian Trapp


Where is the great American summer camp novel? As material for fiction, summer camp has a lot to recommend it. It's a widely-shared cultural experience and an environment full of vulnerable little egos ripe for coming-of-age. It's a self-contained world with an intricate social hierarchy, typically operated by other young people who can barely take care of themselves, let alone a cabin full of children. Yet while summer camp crops up readily enough in film—Wet Hot American Summer, Moonrise Kingdom, even Heavyweights—the summer camp novel does not appear in American letters beyond the Y.A. genre (and I write this as someone who once attempted to rectify this problem and puttered out at page 50). Perhaps camp events are too silly, tedious, and repetitive for literary fiction. Maybe a game of kickball, or an adolescent summer romance is too low stakes. There are only so many times characters can go to arts and crafts and still be interesting.

This was my theory, anyway, until I picked up Gabe Durham's Fun Camp. Fun Camp is not a novel except in the broadest sense of the word; its 119 linked short shorts are made up of monologues, questions, lists, anecdotes, myths, textbook excerpts, and letters. The book is separated into seven sections, one for each day spent away at camp. Durham escapes the pitfalls of his setting by abandoning conventional narrative, using camp instead as a jumping off point for riffs that court our nostalgia for campfires, songs, weeklong friendships, and pranks, while also wickedly satirizing those same childhood affections and concerns. But Durham also has deeper ambitions: the voices of Fun Camp are wide-roving and fearless, walking a tight-rope of tonal complexity while also illuminating the joy, terror, absurdity, and value of fun itself.

The first chapter, wonderfully titled "No Moms for Miles," begins with an opening salvo: "Best think of the rules as opportunities." The speaker then lists all the things not allowed at camp, including "coffee," "weakness," and "unprovoked limping." In Durham's typical inventive mixed registers, he teaches us how to read this book. There are no central characters or plot; instead, Durham uses these opening pages to explore voice and tonal complexity. "No Moms for Miles" ends: "No unfun thoughts. No holding back. Half a forest got burned down for you to live it up." In the midst of fun, Durham's camp is haunted not by hook-handed hitchhikers, but by the specter of loss. Behind the witty jokes and absurd voices, he's mourning our disconnect from nature, from authentic feeling, and from the joy and freedom of childhood.

The voices in these shorts, varied and motley, are well-curated. One voice helps the other campers pull off the prank of the century. There's a contingent of female voices pining with desire for one of the book's few reoccurring characters, the uber-cool and sage-like camper-hunk Tad Gunnick. There is a list of absurd lessons learned from skits and a mash-up of ghost-story clichés. Durham, who spent the past year writing sketch comedy in L.A., shows off his wit when a Christian counselor, during a motivational pep talk, asks, "What's your kampf? I mean that as a metaphor for struggle. You're all at stake here, and I don't mean Sizzler, Billy." But more often, Durham's humor is sly and subtle. One of the recurring voices, the camp cook, Chef Grogg, reminds me of Barthelme's monologues, full of witty verbal energy on the edge of nonsense. In a masterful section titled "All These Hurts," Grogg's riff bounces from discussing sanitizing a pot burnt with macaroni and cheese, to the Hadron Collider, to the ethical responsibility we hold for others: "I wish I was rich enough to look on the back of meats for traces of chronic discomfort."

It's this kind of tonal complexity that makes this book worth reading. One of the most hilarious voices reads like a counselor's textbook on unfun campers. In "Fun Treatment Pedagogies," Durham's counselor makes an Ethical Appeal: "Peter, your current personality taints the week of everyone you encounter. How do you live with yourself? That is, how do you wake each morning the same Peter when yesterday's Peter was so unsuccessful?" This brutal, hilarious voice shows the terror of peer pressure and the camp's social hierarchy. But on the next page, Durham decks us with a camper's suggestion: "Maybe some rule where everybody has to be nice and talk to you […] since it is hard and I am trying." The nimble structure allows for a dialogical clashing of different voices, letting us scorn the weak on one page while indicting us for that laughter on another. The irony, while pervasive, unsettles us with its instability.

But many of the tonal gymnastics happen within the chapters themselves, turning at the end like a good poem. A ridiculous monologue on bees closes, "Best to keep the bees at a distance like the sun and the ocean and trees and the sweatshops and my family and all the other things I'm told I need but don't need close." Many of these shorts are silly until they turn suddenly grave, poignant, and heartbreaking, as if a hilarious stand-up comedian has started to weep. As a voice says in the chapter titled, "Listen to Me": "Because I know just when to kill a joke." And that's also why we should listen to Durham; he knows when to drop the ironic mask. With stylistic sleights-of-hand, his best jokes get beyond irony to an odd pathos and sincerity.

But Durham can also kill a joke by refusing to end it. Some of the chapters fall flat or overdose on whimsy. In one chapter, Durham lists the activities campers can do in their free time: "You can eat wax or be a hero or eat glue." I found myself skimming over the list, which was more nonsensical than funny; it seemed Durham was just having "fun" by himself. Similarly, the nurses' monologues seemed disconnected from the other chapters, more like brain-teasing koans from another kind of book. But like an annoying camp song, when Durham hits a wrong note, it doesn't last very long. And you have to appreciate the spirit. We don't have to like every camp activity to come away with fond memories.

While the short chapters provide variety, it's not clear that they add up to anything coherent or that the tension increases as the book progresses. Durham plants what seem like central events (the Camp Dance, the Night Hike), but they are never actually shown. A camper's letters home become increasingly more troubled and erratic, but these seem more like asides. However I felt another kind of tension mount as I turned the pages, and I think it comes from the passage of time itself as the days tick down to Sunday, as the "fun" of Fun Camp runs out, and as the campers, counselors and readers all have to face their own mortality.

One of the benefits of Durham's ironic bite is that the pathos he does allow is so well-earned. In between the satire and jokes, there is a deep respect for adolescent feeling and experience, the ways its small joys endure. My favorite chapter is the book's last, which frankly breaks my cold adult heart. The set-up: Future you lies on her deathbed, with memories gone, but still speaking in complete paragraphs about a camp love affair. Durham writes: "'I never told you all this, Dad,' old you will say to your old husband. 'I kept it a secret.' But you've told him for years. He eggs you on cause he sees how you love to tell it, how each time you think of it, it's a revelation, a gift you got you." This pathos is not necessarily nostalgia, which by definition is a rose-colored simplification of the past. Durham's satirical bent guards against that risk. But in the end, he asks: What do we value if not our first large feelings, if not our first fun time, if not Fun Camp?