“A work of art . . . a great American novel.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
On an evening in late summer, the great financier Harry Wainwright, nearing the end of his life, arrives at a rustic fishing camp in a remote area of Maine. He comes bearing two things: his wish for a day of fishing in a place that has brought him solace for thirty years, and an astonishing bequest that will forever change the lives of those around him.
From the battlefields of Italy to the turbulence of the Vietnam era, to the private battles of love and family, The Summer Guest reveals the full history of this final pilgrimage and its meaning for four people: Jordan Patterson, the haunted young man who will guide Harry on his last voyage out; the camp’s owner Joe Crosby, a Vietnam draft evader who has spent a lifetime “trying to learn what it means to be brave”; Joe’s wife, Lucy, the woman Harry has loved for three decades; and Joe and Lucy’s daughter Kate—the spirited young woman who holds the key to the last unopened door to the past.
As their stories unfold, secrets are revealed, courage is tested, and the bonds of love are strengthened. And always center stage is the place itself—a magical, forgotten corner of New England where the longings of the human heart are mirrored in the wild beauty of the landscape.
Intimate, powerful, and profound, The Summer Guest reveals Justin Cronin as a storyteller of unique and marvelous talent. It is a book to treasure.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Everybody has a story, so here is mine--the story of me and Kate and old Harry Wainwright, and the woods and lake where all of this takes place. My
name: Jordan Heronimus Patterson Jr., son of the late Captain Jordan Heronimus Patterson Sr., USN, both of us Virginia born and bred, though now I live here, in the North Woods of Maine, where I make my living as a fishing guide. My father, a Navy pilot, loved the air, as I love what's beneath it--the sun and light and snow and mountains of this remote place, and the big trout under the water. To meet me, you might think I must be simple, or unambitious, or just plain lazy, a grown man who fishes for a living; that is, a man who plays. When I take a party out on the lake, or downriver for the last of the spawning runs, when they'll still take a streamer, the man may ask me, or the woman if there is a woman, "What else do you do?" Or, "Do you really stay up here all winter?" A question I don't hold against them, because I'm young, just thirty, and here is far from anywhere, the hardness of winter plain to see even on the sweetest summer afternoon in the twisted way the pines grow; they're asking about movies and restaurants and stores, of course, all the things they love, so it's natural to ask it: What else do I do? So I tell them about taking care of the boats and cabins, and hunting parties in the fall, which I'll do if I have to but don't really care for; and I may throw in a thing or two about college, how I didn't mind going when I was there (University of Maine at Orono, class of 1986, B.S. in economics with a minor in forestry, thank you very much); and the man will nod, or the woman, thinking: Why, here's a man of no account! And for one silent second they're me, and happy because of it, and then they'll ask me where to fish or what pattern to use on the line, and they'll catch something because of what I tell them and go home to Boston or New York or even Los Angeles, and I'll stay here as the snow piles up, something I can't explain to anyone, not even to myself.
And if I sound as if I don't like these people, that isn't at all true. The camp is far north, four hours by car from Portland and tricky to find, and the people who will make such a journey are serious about fishing. They are rich, most of them, a fact they cannot hide: one sees the evidence in their cars, their clothes, the good leather of their luggage and shoes. It's large what's between us, make no mistake, and I know that to such people I am just another body for hire, like the nanny who raises their children, the broker who sells them the stocks that make them more money, the lawyer they retain when they wish to divorce. But because they are rich enough to have these things, they are gracious to me, even respect me, for I know what they do not: where the fish are what they are likely to take. For this they rent me, body and soul, at two hundred fifty dollars a day, a hundred fifty for the half, as pure a bargain as I know about, and dirt cheap if truth be told.
There are regulars, too, people who come up here every year at the time they like best: early summer for the big mayfly hatches, or else the long dry days of August, after the blackflies have gone, the days are as crisp as a butterfly on pins, and the fish have wised up and aren't especially hungry besides--not the easiest time to catch them, but that's not why these folks are here, and not why I'm here, either. Which brings me to the last summer I saw Harry Wainwright--the Harrison P. Wainwright, he of the thirty-odd consecutive summers, the Forbes 500 and the NYSE and all the rest--who came up here at last to die.
We put on the dog for lifers like Harry Wainwright, which up here is really just a state of mind, since there's no way to be fancy. The cabins are identical, rustic and spare, each with a couple of creaky cots, a pot bellied stove and a tippy porch on the water with a view across it to the mountains. What I mean is, we're ready to see him, glad as hell to see him, because lifers like Harry are the bread and butter of a place like ours; we can't afford to advertise, and don't have a mind to anyway, having never bothered to begin with. At the time I'm speaking of, Harry was probably seventy, though until he'd gotten sick he'd aged easily, like the rich man he was. He owned a string of discount drugstores in the South and Midwest (I'd heard it said that if you bought a bottle of aspirin anywhere from Atlanta to Omaha, you probably paid Harry Wainwright for the privilege), and a lot of other things besides, a veritable empire of goods and services in which I had no stake, except for what he paid me as a guide. He hardly needed one; he'd fished this spot since Kennedy was in the White House and knew it as well as any man alive. His tips, always embarrassingly huge, were just another way of his expressing his pure happiness to be here.
Did he impress me? Who wouldn't be impressed by Harry Wainwright?
So, the story: In rolls Harry, whom we all knew was dying of cancer, late on an August afternoon in the Year of Our Lord 1994, with his second (i.e.,
younger) wife, his son and tiny granddaughter, all heaped into a big rented Suburban to haul them up from the airport in Portland with their gear: as beautiful a family as ever I've seen. The day's just tipped toward evening, the best time to arrive, and it's late enough in the season that the birches and striped maples are just beginning to turn in bright crowns of yellow and red, set against the blue, blue sky. Harry is stretched out on the second seat, his back propped against the door with pillows, like old Ramses himself; Harry Jr. (who goes by Hal) is driving; second wife Frances is in the passenger seat; January (named for the month of her birth or the month of her conception, take your pick) is tucked into her comfy car seat in the way back; the car cruises down the long drive. Everybody loves the last eight miles: when you finally arrive, it's like you've already done something, like the fun's already started.
We were expecting him, of course. The night before, we all sat down for a meeting, after Joe had taken the call from Hal, saying Harry wanted to come up, short notice he knew but was there space, and so on. We met in the dining room after supper: me, Joe's wife, Lucy, who ran the kitchen and took care of the books, and their daughter, Kate, who was a junior at Bowdoin and worked in the summers as a guide, and Joe told us what he knew--that Harry had cancer and wanted to fish. The rest, about dying, was in there, but nothing he dared say. The next afternoon Hal called us from the pay phone in town to tell us they were thirty minutes away, so when the car came down the drive, Kate and Joe and I were waiting for them.
Still, when Hall opened the old man's door, it was a shock, and for a moment I thought maybe we'd all missed something and they were bringing his body up for burial--though a man like Harry Wainwright should go to his reward in a pharaoh's robes, not the frayed khakis and tennis shoes and ratty blue sweater, all of it looking pale and loose, that he had on. The sight of a rich man dying is one to shake all your assumptions about a free market economy; here is something--life, health, a fresh set of orders for maniac cells run amok--that can't be bought. As Hal swung the door wide we all held our breaths a little, deciding how to be normal, looking at the sneakers, white as the underbellies of two freshly bagged trout. Hal gave Joe's hand and then my own a solid shake--as I said, he's a good-looking man, his hair gone prematurely silver and tied in a hipster ponytail, the skin around his eyes handsomely crinkled from squinting out over the world's warm waters at all times of year--and then said loudly, to me and everybody else, "Pop? Jordan's here to help us get you out."
Which proved tricky: the cancer, which had started in his lungs, had spread to the bones of his back. The poor guy was stiff as a cracker. Those last eight miles, as bouncy as a carnival ride, must have felt as bad as anything in his life. I scampered around to the rear passenger door; Frances climbed onto the backseat of the Suburban to hold his hands and keep him upright, and I popped open the door and let him sink into my arms. From the other side, Hal and Frances pushed his feet toward me, and as I pulled him out the old guy unfolded like a pocketknife; in a wink he was standing erect, me hugging him from behind, a little unsure if I should let him go or not. He weighed almost nothing, poor bird, although I also believed that if he fell the ground might actually shake, and it would be the worst moment of my life so far.
"Thank you, Jordan."
I looked past his ear and saw that I was supposed to hold him until Frances came around with the walker. Frances was maybe fifty, and I always thought of her as a little mannish, though in a pleasing way: she's a solid woman, her thickness like the thickness of a good book. Fixed to one of the walker's legs was a shiny chrome tank, about the size of a propane canister, with a clear plastic tube that ran to a heart-shaped mask that Frances wedged over Harry's head to ride in the folds of his neck.
"I am, as you see, much reduced, and I thank you."
Reading Group Guide
From award-winning author Justin Cronin, The Summer Guest takes readers to an idyllic Maine hideaway where for decades vacationers have found solitude, tranquility, and of course superior fishing. For one of those travelers, the journey to this camp has taken on special significance; nearing the end of his life, financier Harry Wainwright has booked one last trip to this special place, whose history and gorgeous scenery are intricately woven with his own story. He has also decided to make an astonishing bequest, one that will open new chapters and close some that are decades old, transforming the lives of those who have loved this rustic fishing lodge as much as he has.
Tracing the stories of three generations, from the frontlines of war to the private battlefields of home, The Summer Guest poignantly depicts they ways in which families redefine themselves in the face life’s greatest tests. Written in the gentle, perceptive prose that earned Justin Cronin unanimous praise for his debut Mary and O’Neil, this is a book to treasure—and to share with your most treasured friends.
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Justin Cronin’s The Summer Guest. We hope they will enrich your experience of this tender, transporting novel.
The Summer Guest