Fun Camp by Gabe Durham
The conceit of Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp is seven days spent at a summer camp told from the point of view of the campers, counselors, and staff all gathered together up in the mountains. The novel is split into seven sections (one for each day of the week at the Fun Camp) and each section is comprised of numerous flash fiction pieces. The pieces alternate among narrators: boys and girls, young and old, campers, like Billy or Tad Gunnick, the most popular boy at camp, counselors, primarily Holly and Dave, and staff. While most people remain unnamed, with multiple re-readings you can start spotting specific characters or voices at the helm of a story, and you can discern when they are narrating more than one story. The singular pieces center on a particular activity of the day, or speak to the themes and realities of camp experience. Durham employs catalogs, dramatic monologues, and letters in addition to some hard-to-classify styles with certain forms recurring each day bearing the same titles, such as “Dear Mom,” “Complaint,” and “Warm Fuzzies.” Whether stand alone or recurring, all of the shorts work to capture the confusion, difficulties, and let downs of youth. What emerges is a complex and gratifying structure of stories that can be read and enjoyed individually within the context of the conceit, but that also build to something much, much greater than the parts’ ultimate sum.
Durham displays his subject matter with all the earnestness of a twelve-year-old back from camp, unable to slow down or even breathe as he blurts out each fact, event, and happening as they enter his head. All the humor, oddness, and vulgarity that make up summer camp are on full display, and it feels entirely familiar, straight out of our own experiences (whether primary or borrowed) yet told with such confidence and elocution that we can’t mistake how precisely Durham has crafted these stories. His work on the nostalgia of adolescence is scalpel precise, cutting into new areas of the absurd and the cynical, two modes that are inseparable to the coming of age that occurs in an environment wholly separated from our mothers and homes.
We first see Fun Camp itself as a self aware and directly referencing comic story with polished approach and perfect timing. Yet it transcends into something original by immersing itself so deeply and completely in its subject matter and extrapolating from it a microcosm of human experience, coming of age, and eventual loss of childhood faith in simplicity and authority that often shelters us from the confusion, disappointment, and slog of adulthood. The first time we go through it, our eyes are opened and we see anew. The second time, when we revisit with nostalgia, we see better the complex changes at work that brought us through the first time yet leave us irrevocably changed all over again.
I’ve read Fun Camp twice now, and the second reading was rich in its rewards. I presume that if you both read literature and frequent NANO Fiction to the extent that you are reading this review, then you are not at all afraid to read a book more than once for the pleasures that revisiting a text brings. Fun Camp demands, nay, deserves more than one reading. In revisiting the novel, early stories that work the first time around as parodies of camp rules and order become early stories that foreshadow the dire interactions between campers and the ideological fallout that follows in the second reading. Warm fuzzies and the midnight hike are explained in legalese detail with a telemarketers pitch, yet both activities play out with resonant gravity when the campers of this year’s Fun Camp embark upon them. Stories that initially satirize the hyper-exuberant counselors who appear to have drunk the Kool-Aid one too many times later come back as sober and saddening portrayals of thirty-somethings masking a post-lapsarian cynicism that plays out among them every time the campers disperse and the counselors are left to themselves. Holly and Dave constantly speak of Fun Camp as a place that will change the campers and become a part of them forever, yet they cannot reconcile their own lost and directionless lives, finding themselves spiraling back again and again to this staple of teenage of angst and confusion where they are masters over no one. These juxtapositions and deepening layers are difficult to divine on a first read when there are so many irreverent jokes and absurd passion plays to enjoy on the surface. Novels that achieve such feats as Fun Camp are among the best we can read and re-read.