This review was contributed by Maria Anderson.
What happens when Fun is a rule? In Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp, all of the nostalgia-inducing elements are present: letters home, odd counselors, fun and unfun campers, campfires, and hikes that traditionally devolve into hidden woodsy hookups. There are Shame Parades, After-Dinner Digestion Dances, and games of Steal the Bacon. According to the counselors, “What the child really fears are his own boring impulses.” Fun Camp breaks these impulses.
Cracking campers’ hearts open to the credo of fun means enforcing a long list of rules. “Best to think of the ‘rules’ as opportunities,” a counselor says. These opportunities include no drug implements, “no unprescribed speed,” “no not singing,” “no unfun thoughts,” and “no holding back.” Counselors combine these rules with daily structured activities to make the campers stronger, and their greatest joy is when, “in a Come to Fun Camp moment such as this, the boring child expresses true contrition, and repeats with you the three tenets of surrender: I suck but I know it. I’m bland but I’m working on it. I am hated by those who will someday revere me, for as their self-awareness slackens, my power grows.”
The chunks of text in Fun Camp vary in length from one sentence to three pages, and they accumulate in a way that coheres with the frenzied hormonal storm that is summer camp. The pieces have titles like “Ulterior Roundup,” “The Unfun Among Us,” and “Canteen Buck Caper,” and these are divided into sections marked by days of the week, from Monday to Sunday. The narrative voice contains perspectives of counselors Dave and Holly, a chaplain named Bernadette, first-time camper Billy, and omnipotent, shaggy camper Tad.
The voice is strong, and the conglomerate creates a hearty energy that propels us forward. Events such as the Midnight Hike and the talent show provide just enough plot to ground the accreting sections, and individual narrative threads are heightened as we move toward the end of the week. Momentum increases as the end of camp nears, with the bidding goodbye to the popular Tad, camp cleanup chores, and Sunday morning packing and parental pickup. The way this book comes together, with the monologues, lists, letters, and sermons, keeps us engaged and surprises us with what appears next, tonally, linguistically, and grammatically.
In Fun Camp, Fun takes on a new, expanded meaning, as the epic and elusive heightening of any experience. Though the language and splintered perspectives can at times be overwhelming, the narrative structure is extremely effective: you always know what day of camp it is, and you can trust the story’s momentum to keep you from becoming lost. This book is well worth a read, for both the boisterous diction and for those bunk-bed memories it might ruck up.Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?