In the summer of '76, Jamie's house is a party house. Her parents, Allen and Betty, have a backyard swimming pool, with an open-air thatched bar and boulders embedded in the tiles, but they don't own swimming suits. When they have pool parties, all the kids -- including Jamie, 14, and her 16-year-old sister, Renee -- wear suits, but the adults are buck naked. When they dance into the night, they bounce all over the place in a variety of embarrassing ways. "Watching a naked adult dance," Jamie decides, "is like watching a 3-D movie without the glasses; a shadow image moves beside the real one."
Jamie will spare you further details. Allen and Betty are free spirits, not to mention frequently stoned ones, and they think nothing of going hiking in Death Valley for three days and leaving their 14-year-old daughter alone at the party house. When the local 17-year-old stud, Flip Jenkins, asks her out, they are equally unconcerned:
"Do I have a curfew?" Jamie asked. "I mean, is there like some time I should tell him he has to have me home?"
"Why would you want a curfew?" Allen asked.
"I don't want one, I just thought you'd want one."
"Why would we want one if you don't want one?" Betty asked.
"I just thought you'd want to keep track of me since I'm going to be with a boy, like, on a real date and all."
"Jesus, Jamie," Allen said, "you're fourteen years old now. You can keep track of yourself."
That's true. She can, as she proves in Jessica Anya Blau's new novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties. It just never occurs to Allen and Betty that's not the way Jamie would have it:
There was nothing internal in either of her parents, no alarms or bells or buzzing, that alerted them to the panic their younger daughter felt periodically, like she was an astronaut untethered from the mother ship -- floating without any boundaries against which she could bounce back to home.
Untethered, then, Jamie wades into the deep end of that bicentennial summer, her self-absorbed friends, Tammy and Debbie in tow, experimenting with Flip and dealing with a lot of other things that don't come with instructions. Aura readings, for example. Flip and his buddies' obsession with Betty's breasts, and her mom's obsession with her fledging sex life. The arrival of that doggone trampoline.
And Dog Feather, of course. Dog Feather is a Pomo Indian. "Full-blooded," Dog Feather insists. Allen and Betty bring Dog Feather home from Yosemite one weekend and it isn't too long before you can add his name to the list of guys at the party house infatuated with Jamie's mom.
Me, I'm infatuated with Jamie, or at least the way Jessica Anya Blau slowly defines her great, big heart and expanding consciousness. Blau takes the most embarrassing epiphanies of that fateful summer and writes about them with such subtle candor that it makes the readers' legs buckle, much as Jamie's do one summer night out past the eucalyptus trees:
And then, in an instant, Jamie understood why sex was such a big deal; why it made marriages and broke them up again; why most graffiti in public bathrooms was about sex; why Dog Feather read Jugs and loved Betty's breasts; why Allen loved Betty; why Leon hung around the house like a mosquito you couldn't pin down long enough to catch; why Tammy and Debbie thought they were in love; why Flip wanted to do it right then and right there.
Jamie may be untethered as she floats through The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, but this reader found himself inexorably tied to her family, her story and the terrifying things that come bouncing her way. I promise you I won't be the only one.
Causes Jessica Blau Supports
Baltimore School for the Arts, 826DC, CityLit Project.