The Summer of Naked Swim Parties
By Jessica Anya Blau
Harper Perennial, 2008
Over the years several movies have succeeded in capturing the essence of adolescence in the 1970s (Dazed and Confused stands out in particular). Jessica Anya Blau’s The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is the novel equivalent of a bittersweet teen movie that has more on its mind than just laughs and titillation (e.g., Say Anything, Bend It Like Beckham).
Blau grew up in Santa Barbara, the daughter of a UCSB professor, and she has set her story in her former backyard, which she knows intimately. Fourteen-year-old Jamie is about to experience “The Summer of Growing Up.” Her parents, Allen and Betty, are free spirits who smoke pot and host skinny-dipping parties. Her 16-year-old sister, Renee, resents Jamie because the latter is more developed physically, emotionally, and socially. Jamie spends her time with partners in crime Tammy and Debbie gossiping, talking about “cute” boys (usually slightly older surfers with trucks), and coping with parental and school issues.
The plot centers around a time of change in Jamie’s relationships: with her parents, her sister, her friends, and with 17-year-old Flip Jenkins, who was voted “Lester Luscious” at her high school. As a freshman, she can’t believe her luck in dating Flip, who is generally a good guy but very much a teen of his time.
As the summer progresses, Jamie begins to sense that she is different from her peers, and her relationships become more complex and unpredictable. Her frequent embarrassment at her parents’ behavior grows into something more accommodating and affectionate. The tension with Renee belies the fact that Jamie just wants a closer relationship with her big sister, but can’t seem to figure out how to achieve that. While Jamie begins to experience emotional growth, Tammy and Debbie seem stuck in Superficial Teen Land. And despite her excitement, pride, and pleasure at being Flip’s girlfriend, Jamie eventually becomes disenchanted with their relationship.
The turning point occurs when tragedy strikes at one of her parents’ pool parties, forcing Jamie out of her summer of love, tanning, and partying. The falling action of the story makes the second half of the novel richer and more thought-provoking than the high-spirited and often hilarious first half. While the book treads close to YA territory in the early going, it moves toward literature in the latter stages, thanks to Blau’s compassionate depiction of a confused Jamie struggling to sort out her thoughts and feelings and find her way forward.
For much of the book, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties sails along on its breezy dialogue like a Hobie Cat off the Santa Barbara coast. Blau remembers the way people spoke in 1976 (the summer I turned 17) and fine tunes it into sparkling dialogue that had me laughing out loud on many occasions. The conversations between Jamie and her eccentric parents are often priceless. I was there (living just 90 minutes south in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles) and this is what 1976 sounded like.
Blau has the period details correct, with 1976 talismans like Frampton Comes Alive, The Joy of Sex, and The Exorcist making appearances. She also nails the clothing and home furnishings of the time. I particularly enjoyed one small touch: for much of the book, the disdainful Renee calls Jamie “Farrah” (and Betty complains about Farrah’s visible nipples in her iconic bathing suit poster). Blau also takes jabs at Jesus freaks (Tammy and her parents), group therapy (which her family attempts briefly, with disastrous results), and hippie-dippy adults who refuse to grow up and act like responsible parents.
At one point, Betty becomes enamored of a young Native American man they meet while camping. But Jamie thinks Dog Feather is phony.
“I don’t understand why Indian is a bad word,” Jamie said.
“The people in India are Indian,” Dog Feather said.
“So, you can be Indian too.”
“But I’m not from India,” Dog Feather said. “I’m from the United States of America. My people were the first people here. This land belongs to my people.”
“This land belongs to the Chumash, not the Pomo.” If she were Chumash, Jamie thought, she’d start a tribal war against Dog Feather.
When Betty decides the family home is host to evil spirits, she locates an elderly Greek Orthodox priest who agrees to perform an exorcism. Before they understand what is happening, Jamie and Betty end up in the pool being forcefully baptized. Jamie tells Tammy about the priest’s visit.
“So the house was exorcised by this old Greek priest,” Jamie said.
“Did your head spin around? Did you vomit pea soup?”
“Is that what happens in the movie?”
“Yeah. It was gross.”
“No, he just walked around with stuff burning in this lantern and chanted a lot. But guess what.”
“I was baptized.”
“But you’re Jewish.”
“Just my dad.”
“I know, but I thought your mom was an atheist, so that meant that you’re Jewish.”
“It means I’m half Jewish and half atheist.”
“No. Because one plus zero equals one. So if your mom’s nothing, that’s zero, if your dad’s Jewish, that’s one. So Jewish plus atheist equals Jewish.”
“Religion isn’t math, Tammy. Besides, I think I’m technically Greek Orthodox now.”
Blau deserves kudos for her sensitive portrayal of Jamie’s first sexual experiences, which seem spot-on.
In one scene late in the novel, Tammy tries to get Jamie to join a group of friends who are camping at the beach. When she offers to fix Jamie up with Scooter Ray, the following conversation ensues.
“He’s totally hot,” Tammy said.
“He doesn’t speak.”
“He dated all these senior girls who are, like, so hot they could get anyone, and they went out with him.”
“But I don’t even know him. Are you sure he knows that I’m me? I mean, like, did he say my name and everything, or did he say ‘Call that girl you hang out with’?”
“He knows who you are!”
“Did he say my name?”
“I don’t remember.”
“So he could be thinking of someone else. Like, maybe if he just described me and said, that short girl with straight brown hair, you thought he was thinking of me, but really he was thinking of Amy Bell.”
“He meant you. Okay? So are you coming or not?”
“And do what? You guys will be going off in your sleeping bags and then Scooter Ray and I will be sitting there by the fire and, what? Make out? Have sex?” Every time Jamie thought of sex she thought of the explosion she had felt against the fence with Flip. And when she thought of the explosion she thought of Lacey. Sex thoughts had become a tautological tangle from which she couldn’t extract anything but the horrifying facts of that day.
“You could have sex,” Tammy said. “I’m sure he’d want to.”
I enjoyed The Summer of Naked Swim Parties for its alternately jaundiced and affectionate perspective but also for its eventual emotional richness. If you were a teenager in the 1970s, you’ll want to read it for a trip down Memory Lane. If you’re younger than that, read it to see what it was like to grow up during the year of the American Bicentennial, when Frampton Comes Alive was omnipresent on the radio and all your friends’ record players, and wearing a Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax shirt to school was considered scandalous. (And when “prog rock” bands like Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer, with their ridiculously complex, anti-pop music, headlined stadium concerts. The big tour that summer featured Yes, Frampton, Gary Wright, and Gentle Giant. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYx7ik-btYo)
Jamie survives the summer of her parents’ naked swim parties just as we made it through our melodramatic teen summers, scarred but determined to reach the bright futures we were certain were our destiny.