For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been quietly haunted by “The Summer Friend,” Charles McGrath’s small, beautiful new memoir about a man he met one vacation season who became a memorable pal. The book resonated with me because we seem to be in a season of our national life when the basic ingredients of happiness are more elusive. At times like this, we feel a special need to reconnect with the things that promise to make us whole again. McGrath suggests, without being so obvious as to preach about it, that one path to fulfillment in good times and bad is having at least one good friend.
McGrath’s book is about his dear friend, an architect named Chip Gillespie who died several years ago but still lives vividly in McGrath’s memory. Naturally, given Gillespie’s passing, a small note of loss runs through the pages of McGrath’s memoir. But this isn’t really a sad book. In fact, many of the chapters are side-splittingly funny, touching on the oddball misadventures that male friends tend to get into. Chapter titles such as “Jumping,” “Blowing Stuff Up,” and “Messing About in Boats” chronicle the kinds of pastimes that would feel right at home in many corners of Louisiana, though McGrath and Gillespie’s field of play was coastal New England, where their families shared summers together. The two men were both husbands and fathers who had children of similar ages, which gave them an obvious point of connection.
Their families happened to meet at a social function during the vacation season of 1982, but two things allowed McGrath and Gillespie to grow a chance encounter into real friendship. One key factor was their mutual willingness to make a new friend even though they were both well into adulthood. Many of us grow content with friends we’ve made in youth and stop trying to broaden our circle. The other vital ingredient in the bond between McGrath and Gillespie was what any friendship needs: time.
McGrath, who’s had a long career as a newspaper and magazine editor, began spending part of his summers in small-town New England to get away from the hurly-burly of the publishing scene. In those long-ago seasons, at a remove from the high-pressure demands of journalism, McGrath had the latitude to cultivate a social life.
Reading “The Summer Friend,” I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of nostalgia for the kind of respite that McGrath describes. His book, ostensibly a tribute to Gillespie, is really an elegy for something else: the summers we used to know before the constant connectedness of online culture.
Would these two men have become friends in an age of email, smartphones and social media, innovations that have made getting away from it all so much harder?
Maybe not. But “The Summer Friend” is a timely reminder that a broken world can still be reconnected, one precious friendship at a time.
Email Danny Heitman at email@example.com.