Scott Sommer Essay - Critical Essays

Sommer, Scott


Scott Sommer 1951–

American novelist and short story writer.

Sommer writes with a clear vision of the effects of society on contemporary youth. In prose that is alternately comic and brooding, he portrays young people coming to terms with life, love, and self in worlds that are often confusing and impersonal.

Sommer's first novel, Nearing's Grace, attempts to capture the nuances of the adolescent sensibility. His grasp of the vernacular and psychology of his characters supply the reader with insights into the pill-popping generation.

Sommer's astute understanding of the difficulties of being young in a rapidly changing world comes into play again in his second novel, Last Resort. In this work, a new college graduate faces the reality that he has no career goals and little personal security. As is true of all of Sommer's fiction, Last Resort moves beyond the perimeters of its story to make observations on the morality of contemporary society.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 106.)

Paul Ableman

Naturally, the kids will love [Scott Sommer's Nearing's Grace]. It is every switched-on adolescent's private phantasy. But what of the grown-up reader? Does Nearing's Grace offer anything to him? The disconcerting answer is: a great deal. Because Scott Sommer turns out to be a natural writer and every discriminating reader, young or old, will derive from his book the joy of words used to illuminate, tease, delight and amuse, will, in other words, find in these pages a true, if slight, work of literature. I would like to quote a passage that will reveal Mr Sommer at his substantial best. But it is difficult because the book is written in a spaced-out vernacular that ambles along and then suddenly soars into lyricism, psychological insight and even compassionate understanding. Perhaps the best I can do is quote three metaphors from three consecutive pages. 'Memory bullied its way into my thoughts like a cop into a crowd.' 'Even as a young boy I could feel her loneliness screaming desperately as a crow.' And the charmingly indelicate: 'When she kissed me, my testicles did pushups.' It is, of course, too early to say if Mr Sommer will succeed in harnessing his talent to broader and more urgent themes in the future but this, his maiden flight, is a joy to behold.

Paul Ableman, "Maiden Flight," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 245, No. 7935, August 9, 1980, p. 21.

Peter Kemp

Nearing's Grace by Scott Sommer is a … mature book: in fact, it is partly about what constitutes genuine maturity. Narrated in the first person by a college drop-out with a nice line in irony, it inevitably calls to mind The Catcher in the Rye—especially as Henry Nearing also shares Holden Caulfield's preoccupation with death: he rides a motor-bike called Thanatos and writes imaginary letters to his dead mother. The world he sardonically surveys, however, is very different from Holden Caulfield's. College sex is no longer a matter of heavy petting but strenuous all-night sessions fuelled by coke and Quaaludes.

For all their sexy rompings, the book's characters finally emerge as forlorn. Their hectic hedonism increasingly seems a panic-flight from the pressures of reality….

Nearing himself is a virtuoso of irony—it is his real grace. Thanks to it, the book's sad facts are given very funny formulations.

Peter Kemp, "Sicker Roses" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1980; reprinted by permission of Peter Kemp), in The Listener, Vol. 104, No. 2675, August 21, 1980, p. 249.∗

Jonathan Baumbach

A kind of hip, post-1960's despair informs ["Lifetime," an] impressive collection of two novellas and three stories, the charm of the style in counterpoise to the anguish of the experience. To survive, Scott Sommer's characters take refuge in booze, drugs, sex, madness—anything to take the edge off loneliness and pain. All relationships in the corrupted world of these fictions are transient. In "Waiting for Merna," the temporary absence of the unemployed narrator's lover seems a rehearsal for an inevitable, permanent loss. The distraught older son in "Sickness," abandoned by wife and child, has returned to the madhouse of his parents' home. Mahoney, the hero of the title novella, has lost a woman he loves before the story starts and loses three more before the story is over. Love, which is of limited duration in this fictional world (and illusory perhaps even then), ends characteristically in disrepair and regret.

If the strategy of these stories tends to be post-modern in its imaginative use of literary form, the sensibility is romantic in the way of J. D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The brilliant "Entrapped and Abandoned" is presented as an imaginary love letter from the narrator, Taplinger, to a woman named Felice, whom he has provoked into leaving him. The narrator's nostalgia is the occasion of the story….

The compressed form of "Lifetime"—the action takes place over seven days and seven nights—and...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Robert Towers

Even low-rent tragedies demand characters of some definition and grit. Those who populate Lifetime, a collection of three stories and two novellas by Scott Sommer, are, with one exception, too undone, too disintegrated or amorphous, to put up a fight. (p. 38)

Too often Sommer seems to be indulging in Schadenfreude at the expense of his characters; the laying on of woe becomes too easy, like the rhyming of Hertz and Schmertz in German Romantic poetry.

The only protagonist not totally defeated by life is the ten-year-old narrator of "Crisscross." Eerily precocious, Coke tells us about the goings-on among the drug-obsessed inhabitants of a sordid Key West hotel and his own involvement—at first innocent and then "street-wise"—in the cocaine traffic. Though he too is a victim—fatherless, and to all effects abandoned by his promiscuous, drug-besotted mother—the fact that Coke at least is still able to stand up and fight lends a certain hectic vitality to this curious novella. He has some language, too, that rises above the low-keyed monotone of heartbreak that prevails elsewhere. (pp. 38-9)

Sommer is not yet a master of his art. He has not found a voice of his own that he can use with real confidence. He is given to certain jarring mannerisms and a tendency to undermine his effects by cool, throwaway comments and self-consciously literary intrusions…. Above all, he is unable to persuade me that his vision of universal bleakness is fully earned. But in each of the pieces with the exception of "Sickness," which I found vapid and unconvincing, there are passages of real power and incisiveness, phrases that one would like to have written; and two of the stories—"Waiting for Merna" and "Crisscross"—succeed well enough to make Scott Sommer's work worth following. (p. 39)

Robert Towers, "Low-Rent Tragedies," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 8, May 14, 1981, pp. 37-40.∗

Sandra Salmans

[In Nearing's Grace, Scott Sommer has] made the mistake of straining for profundity where none exists. The result is a book that never quite lives up to its ambitions, either comic or cosmic, and even in the short space of 175 pages manages to lapse all too frequently into tedium….

[Henry Nearing], like most of the characters in the book, is neither dislikeable nor particularly interesting….

In fact, although he is the narrator of Nearing's Grace, Henry has never really come alive; with no distinguishing physical or psychological marks, he is less vivid than most of the other characters, including the oversexed Grace and her lacrosse stick-swinging boyfriend Lance. Sommer's most successful character is Merna, a would-be songwriter who is afraid that she may be the last virgin in suburbia. Her much-publicized availability—she acquires simultaneously a diaphragm and birth-control pills—is one of the nicer touches in the book.

Sandra Salmans, "The High School Hedonists," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4039, August 22, 1981, p. 930.

Barry Targan

[The title story of Scott Sommer's Lifetime] is far richer in ironies and complexities and characters than a brief description can convey. And it is richer in this sense than the other admirable stories in the collection because thematically it ranges more widely, reaches up into the possibility and the condition of love and the chance for a kind of personal salvation even as it measures the more terrifyingly bleak likelihoods.

In Sommer's other stories we are not always sure enough about why his characters have succumbed so completely or so quickly to their self-destructive (and self-pitying) condition. Surely there are people "like this," yet they are not simply or widely representative of...

(The entire section is 291 words.)

Todd Walton

Scott Sommer's second novel, "Last Resort," might have been better as a longish short story. As it stands, the book contains more padding than substance….

[Most] of Scott Sommer's writing is uneven, his syntax sometimes atrocious: "The sun was upon us. By way of apology, I wanted to steal some of its mercy and give it to Leah, wrapped in ribbon." I don't think this was supposed to be New Wave prose, but if it was, that could explain it.

What, then, was the idea that spawned "Last Resort"? I think it might have been the question: What would happen if a boy / man met the perfect woman (whatever that means) before he was ready for her? How would he feel and what would he do?...

(The entire section is 179 words.)

Joan Silber

Tramp Bottoms [protagonist of Last Resort] is getting nowhere trying to be a rock star, won't marry his terrific girlfriend because he knows he'll just make her miserable, and has come home to the Jersey shore to brood about the whole thing. "How at twenty-five my whole life had come to absolutely nothing was a mystery for which I needed a clue. You get older, I suppose, and things have a way of slipping through your fingers." So far (that quote appears on page one) the hero is not likely to get sympathy from anyone over 26.

But if the central dilemma never seems all that urgent, Sommer's writing is skilled enough to give the book some occasional lyric flashes…. He also has a knack for...

(The entire section is 291 words.)

Richard Peabody, Jr.

It's a truism of contemporary life that a man's career often comes before family and friends. Scott Sommer's [Last Resort] explores this predicament and its effects on an aspiring rock 'n' roll singer-songwriter named Tramp Bottoms….

Despite the tragic elements, and the fatalistic commentary on the nuclear family in America today, Sommer can't help but paint an optimistic picture. Tramp's prideful conflict with Leah—his career in music is promising only as compared to her relative success landing a book contract—seems ludicrous. Leah's love for Tramp appears equally unjustified but we come to appreciate his irresistible incompetence.

Well drawn adults buffer the...

(The entire section is 274 words.)