I can’t let this day (or night) pass without a mention of Erskine Caldwell’s The Last Night of Summer, an engaging and shocking, brief novel set in a river city called Grandport, not far from the Gulf of Mexico, during the mid-20th century. The book is unfortunately out of print, but it’s available from used bookstores, where I found my copy. I wasn’t looking for it; however, like many used books I bring into my house, I found it irresistible and put it with all the other books in the “hope to read” pile. Well, I’ve been going through that pile.
Erskine Caldwell (1903 -1987) wrote prolifically — non-fiction, novels and short stories — to a vast, international readership. He’s frequently described as one of the most widely read literary figures of the twentieth century. Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre are his most acclaimed and best-known novels, both published in the 1930’s, classic literature about the hopelessly rural poor in the American South. These two books, and a few others of the many Caldwell wrote, get mentions in articles about him, but I haven’t found any mention of The Last Night of Summer, published in 1963. Caldwell’s later books received less critical attention.
Even though it’s not among his best, or most spoken about, The Last Night of Summer is riveting. First, though, you have to get past the deceptively slow beginning, where an old-fashioned sense of sexual propriety versus risk suggests the story may be an outdated bog of a read. A young Roma Henderson propositions her boss and business owner, the middle-aged Brooks Ingraham, begging him to come to her apartment that night. It’s a big deal that she addresses him — for the first time — as Brooks, instead of Mr. Ingraham, to give an example of the era. But hang on — as Brooks decides to take Roma up on her offer, cheating on his cold, demanding, wealthy wife, the story quickly gives way to unexpected consequences. Indeed, in less than 200 pages, Caldwell produces a startling plot that involves adultery, murder, a car wreck, assault and robbery, rape and prostitution. The prose lacks elegance — Caldwell was known for his direct style — but that makes the story more unsettling. There’s no fluff to soften the grit of what’s happening. The prose also includes unusual, colorful parenthetical inner thoughts of characters and also author commentary, such as the following:
(“You can’t blame a country boy like Brooks too much for stepping up out of his class and marrying a rich woman like Maureen. Maybe he didn’t find out till it was too late that she wasn’t going to let his mother and father come to the wedding or invite them to her house ever since, and after that it was too late for him to put his foot down and do something about it. …What Maureen wanted from the start was a tall handsome man like Brooks to take her to the country club dances and to show him off at parties, and she had the money to get what she wanted.”)
Thunderstorms roll in and pound the city. This wild, stormy weather gives the book its title, for the storms are known to occur the last night of summer, bringing an end to all the hot days and nights in the flat delta country surrounding Grandport. But something else also happens: People on this night are driven to do things they’ve had on their minds all summer long, before it’s too late. And so they do, in this surprising page-turner with its old-fashioned attitudes and direct, sensational action.