The memories and the revised relationships stimulated by a college reunion produce a mixed bag of individual stories in this involving and beautifully written eighth novel from veteran author O’Brien, still best known for his award-winning Going for Cacciato (1978).
There’s an echo of The Big Chill at the start as graduates of a small Minnesota college’s class of 1969 gather on a hot July weekend. The opening pages briefly introduce pivotal characters, then the story settles into juxtapositions of the present situation against tales of separate and shared pasts. We know at the outset that unmarried Karen Burns has recently been murdered and that good-natured dentist Harmon Osterberg drowned while on summer vacation. Further details emerge as O’Brien patiently connects their histories, as well as those of several others. Ageless sexpot “Spook” (Caroline) Spinelli, who’s already managing two husbands, turns her attentions to obese, ever romantically hopeful mop-and-broom mogul Marv Bertel. Embittered divorcées Amy Robinson and Jan Huebner recall their unhappy sexual experiences, while functioning as a venomous two-woman Greek chorus. Happily married Ellie Abbott and presumably celibate woman pastor Paulette Haslo cope awkwardly with unsheddable emotional burdens. In a perfectly controlled dual story, cancer-victim and conservative matron Dorothy Stier reconsiders her refusal to move to Canada in 1969 with draft-dodger Billy McCann, who has never forgiven her failure of nerve. And in sequences that show O’Brien at his most assured, former baseball phenom and Vietnam vet amputee David Todd struggles heroically to live with his several disabilities, including the (brilliantly imagined) “voice” in his head and his unquenchable love for the woman who returned his affection but couldn’t live with him. Though its parts are of unequal interest and excellence, July, July powerfully dramatizes the long, lingering aftermath of what had seemed to those who grew up during it, a veritable year of wonders (“Man on the moon, those amazing Mets. We had to believe”).
A heartening recovery of form after the meretricious Tomcat in Love (1998). Once again, O’Brien proves he’s capable of being one of our brightest and best novelists.