Summer the Way You Wish It Was: Reading Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp

by Seth Sawyers

Is it OK to say that a book tickled me? I don’t normally read “weird” books. I read novels with plots, memoirs, short stories. This one, though, this weird little book, it won me over.


Reading Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp is like listening to your smartest, funniest, cleverist (and sometimes weirdest) friends talk about, on top of, around, behind, inside of a single subject: a week-long summer camp for kids in their early teens. What tickles is Durham’s love of language, the playfulness of it, his love of its ability to pierce, to tease, to confound. It’s a very funny book. Durham seems like he’s probably a very funny person.


What is Fun Camp? Ostensibly, it’s fiction, but not a novel, not short stories. Instead, it’s a sort of chorus of short chapters, some from counselors’ points of view, some from campers’, and at least one from the strangest camp cook you’ll ever come to know. The effect is of a lot of crickets all singing maybe not the same song, but certainly in the same key. There’s no real narrative, but in its place is a steady drip of these voices addressing the experience of camp from just about every angle. And every angle is at the same time stranger and better than you could imagine.


But it’s not weird for weird’s sake. Durham, in this first book (from the formerly based-in-Baltimore indie house Publishing Genius), imbues these little rhapsodies and camp instructions with moments, too, of knockout beauty and insight. In the chapter “Apology + Opportunity,” a counselor guides a young couple through its first brush with love. In it, Durham uses all of his tools: the love of the language, the slight creepiness of a counselor aiding two teens toward consummation, melancholy, and, in the end, a rush toward something that transcends. Also, it’s funny. Here’s the entire 205-word chapter:


Tommy, Janna, I’m going to stop you right there. Now when I say the feelings you’re describing are exceptional, I mean nuke the moon. Your account of the time spent between yesterday’s kickball game and this evening when I happened upon you in each other—all I can say is wow and God bless and cherish it because for some of us, this has never happened. Have I been in love? I would hesitate and then say yes. But there is love and there is the ineffable mountain you’re scaling. To review: you two share the same favorite show, favorite movie, favorite band, favorite song, you both run track, and you both find camp a little immature. What I need to secure from you now are two swears on this copy of Camp Bylaws for the Hearty and True that you won’t let my uninformed intrusion dampen your beginnings. There’s an expression for the look you two are giving each other: Married in our Hearts. And when such looks are exchanged between two consenters age fifteen and up, the Lord winks and turns away. So too shall I. What happens next is: I’m going for a forty-minute nature walk. You will find my cabin unlocked.


There’s a lot going on in this little book. There’s the stuff you’d expect from summer camp: bad food, smelly bodies, nerds, cool kids, slights, fierce first loves. But there’s more than that. There are riddles. There are Craigslist-style personal ads. There’s so much flat-out heart in here, a quality not seen enough in our more cynical literary fiction, if you ask me. There’s a chapter called “Remember to Breathe” that is among the warmest, most reassuring, optimistic passages in prose I’ve read in a while, and another, “Peaked at Fourteen,” that is among the saddest.


Durham, founder, editor, and publisher of Boss Fight Books, has published a new book, Bible Adventures, about an early-90s video game of the same name. I don’t know a thing about this video game, but I’m going to read the book.