What People Are Saying About Summer Capricorn

A. Edward Wolfe

Tempe, AZ

A Tale of Transformation

We love to watch characters change, to surprise us convincingly. We want to see how much change a personality can undergo without losing its identity entirely. How will Spiderman live up to his uncle's dictum that "with great power comes great responsibility," and yet can he live without MJ? We are morbidly transfixed by the prospect of what could prompt the innocent child Anakin, with his tender feelings toward his mother and the young queen, to become the monster we will know as Darth Vader. Of course, our fascination with transformation is not recent. It seems to be as old as Western literature itself. We see it in Harper Lee's Scout, in Joyce's Portrait, and in Twain's Huckleberry. We don't quite believe the transformation of Sinclair's strong, optimistic, and naive Jurgis Rudkus to the starry-eyed socialist in The Jungle. By the end of the novel, he seems nearly to have lost his identity completely. Perhaps one of the greatest tales of transformation is Dickens' David Copperfield, which traces an entire life. Even Dickens' minor characters undergo transformation, (off-screen so to speak, since many of them make only cameo appearances in his books) with a believability that brings credit to their author. The enduring popularity of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Shelley's Frankenstein testify to our curiosity. Austen's characters must shed their Pride and Prejudice in order to get together. Shakespeare's characters often descend into tragedy by yielding to their personal demons--Othello and Macbeth come readily to mind. Even in his lighter moments, the transformation of the Bard's characters, such as Bottom or Falstaff, is part of the fun. Odysseus, through his many harrowing experiences, transforms into a bitter and vengeful killer, and teaches young Telemachus to join him. The faithful Penelope, unchanging as she is, is perhaps to our modern minds the least convincing main character of the tale. In the greatest bestseller of all time, The Holy Bible, God transforms himself into a human and then, presumably back again. His people transform from a faithless, self-centered, and fearful group to a heroic (albeit flawed) people willing to sacrifice themselves for his cause. The Good book even offers transformation to the reader. "If anyone is in Christ," the apostle asserts, "he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17, New International Version). "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2, New International Version). Yes, we love to see characters change.


Little wonder, then, that we reserve a special place in our hearts for the coming of age story, a special type of transformation tale. Terry Row's Summer Capricorn, a vaguely autobiographical though fictitious yarn, is a recent and highly original addition to the genre. The story traces the transformation of young Adam Nicholas from a successful but burned-out classical oboist to a would-be computer programmer with a "real" (read nine-to-five) job. Because the recession in the Silicon Valley of the early eighties interferes with his plans, Adam soon finds himself facing unemployment with his money running out. A good number of unusual experiences and a good deal of soul searching follow. The title refers to Adam's summer of discontent as he undergoes the frustration of seeking employment, and then finds it on a goat farm and, oddly, as a psychiatric aide at fictitious Goat Harbor Hospital on the California coast near San Francisco. Through the experiences, we are surprised to find inner resources we--and perhaps Adam himself--did not know he had. Throughout the book, Adam, true to his astrological sign of Capricorn (the goat), embodies qualities of persistence, discipline, and strength of will. 


The structure of the book, fifty-eight chapters or vignettes of varying lengths, makes for lively reading, weaving as it does the symbolism of the goat throughout. Three primal encounters late in the book perhaps most vividly symbolize Adam's transformation, if not to mystic, at least to a naturalist with a fragile and budding sense of the transcendent. He encounters "Satan," a huge, disgusting, and prolific male goat. (We find an echo of Satan in one of the patients at Goat Harbor Hospital.) Later he slaughters a kid for food. Finally and most traumatically, one of the patients in whom Adam had invested his care unexpectedly dies. These climactic encounters, rich as they are in symbolism, at the least are hands-on, up-close-and-personal experiences for Adam with life and death.


Although some of the writing seems so detailed as to bring the narrative to a halt, much of the time the richness of the texture makes for a vivid experience for the reader.


The truck started on the first try and Adam maneuvered it around the barn to the gate of the corral. Bill gathered up the kids--who were in a complete dither over this disturbance to the normal routine--and penned them up in the back shed. Their grandma Sara stood at the gate. She knew what was happening. She knew where they were going, and she was the least anxious about the preparations. 

Just to be clear: the kids and Sara are goats; Adam and Bill are people. 


Row's writing shows impressive promise. Consider how he foreshadows some of the major themes in the first two sentences of the book: 


He turned left onto Market Street and started down the sweeping S-curve toward the theatre district. To the east, the green hills across San Francisco Bay glowed from the setting sunlight, while the fog, already engulfing the Sunset district, rolled into Adam's rear-view mirror. 

Here we find Adam poised between the "market" place and the performing arts, glancing toward the beauty of the natural world, and about to be engulfed in fog and ambiguity. Is this the end of a day or the end of a chapter in Adam's life? It's a great way to start this book. 


I found myself oppressed by the unrelenting and single-minded point of view of the narrative. We see, as does Adam, every thing, person, animal, and event from Adam's perspective, and his alone. Only once that I recall did the author's style shift noticeably, suggesting a new point of view, and it was a refreshing bit of writing: 


He was blond and strong for his age and he played soccer and talked in breathless, non-stop sentences and it was important to him that people heard what he had to say and he read Treasure Island that summer and pretended to be a pirate and the barn was his pirate ship and he wore a bandanna wrapped around his head. 

Ironically, we may be hearing in this passage a clearer expression of the author's nascent voice than in some of the more prosaic and detailed passages. Mostly, though, the diction and style remain much the same throughout the novel, even in dialog when an author has a built-in excuse to change his style. Refreshingly, the author's tone toward his characters is affectionate and restrained. Still, because of the unyielding point of view of the novel, I never quite got the feeling that Adam came out of himself. We know that a first-person narrative need not limit itself to a single point of view: consider Huckleberry Finn and C. S. Lewis' masterpiece, Till We Have Faces. Even less so, a third-person narrative. 


As a first novel, Summer Capricorn is amazingly rich-textured, provocative, and vibrant. I imagine readers who follow Row's career will look back on it in future years with pleasure. It undoubtedly foreshadows a notable and articulate voice.