Through the entirety of this past summer, pressed on all sides by a deluge of moving boxes at my new home in Kitchener and a raucous toddler who had lost the ability to stay asleep, my reading habit nearly ground to a terrifying halt. There just wasn’t time. The one book, however, that nipped at my heels through a series of Park ‘n Fly hotels and a furnitureless quarantine was Barrett Swanson’s first collection of essays, Lost in Summerland. These are whip-smart, crackling essays that I ate, piecemeal-fashion, all through August and September.
A fiction writer by training and artistic temperament, Swanson gifts us with an emotionally resonant and probing reportage of American disquiet in the last half decade, of citizen obligation in the twenty years since 9/11, and—especially, woven throughout—of filial love (his banged-up, psychic brother, a tragically murdered friend, the missed quarterback throws to an aging father, the renunciation of self in marriage, etc.).
Swanson’s essays are big, embracing, singing works of literary art. You get the sense that he writes each piece as though it might be his last and best. His writing, especially the diction, manages to be genuinely earnest, often somber, while also being unarguably funny—a precision so consistent that his pen can often feel like a scalpel.
We follow Swanson to the hardscrabble organic farm of an antiwar Iraq Vet (“The Soldier and the Soil”), to an emotional, wolf-howling men’s retreat (“Consciousness Razing”), to an escapist, Trump-era West Wing fan conference (“Political Fictions”), under the rubble of a FEMA disaster training center in Texas just as news breaks from Wuhan, China about the spread of a mysterious new virus (“Disaster City”), into the mossy dregs of an aging utopia in Florida (“Prophet of the Swamp”).
But it’s the title piece that gets me. I’ve read it three times now, just trying to follow his moves (read: learn his ways) but inevitably, unfailingly, getting swept up in his account. Selected by Robert Macfarlane for the Best American Travel Writing 2020, “Lost in Summerland” takes Swanson and his brother Andy on a personal, historical, and spiritual road trip to Lily Dale, a nearly 200-year-old Spiritualist village of psychics and mediums located outside Buffalo, NY. Andy’s there to gain some perspective on the eerie premonitions that are destabilizing his life and, well, freaking him out. Swanson’s there for his brother, while initially trying not to smirk too broadly. By the end, of course, there’s a pivot, but that turn in perspective isn’t really the point (as it would be in lesser hands). Instead, the essay pushes on into the marrow of our fears about death and obliteration and about whose hands might pull us from the watery gorge.
Throughout the entire collection, Swanson manages to navigate “an ozone of cynicism” with an emotional honesty that is equal parts joyous and painful, that is much more complexly truthful to the world around us than any fast “hot take” you might find on the internet. If I write, when I write, I want to write like this. As he notes in a recent Hazlitt interview with Suzannah Showler, “It is laughably easy to point and sneer—far harder (and more artistically daring) to acknowledge one’s own place in all this.” And it’s this precise attunement to his own various relations and obligations, as a person, as a writer, that makes Lost in Summerland a distinctly spiritual, deeply humane collection of essays.
→ Geoff Martin is a CNF contributing editor at Barren Magazine, and his place-based and environmental writings have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. His work has appeared most recently in The Common, Hamilton Arts & Letters, Literary Review of Canada, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. After a decade spent living in Chicago, Western Massachusetts, and San Francisco, he recently moved home to Kitchener, ON.
Photo by Handiwork NYC on Unsplash