It’s always been my theory that a good story gets one outlandish contrivance. That’s fair…otherwise, why would we bother to read it? After that, though, it has to play by the rules.
The moment in Victor Jestin’s sensational novel Heatwave that you need to suspend your disbelief comes right at the beginning, when 17-year-old Leo discovers a peer dying by his own hand — perhaps accidentally, perhaps not — and decides to hide the evidence. That decision of course paints Leo in a suspicious light when in fact he had little fault in the fatality, but for a young man who’s in shock and wracked with guilt, the misstep is perhaps understandable.
Although the circumstances suffuse the remainder of the short book — published in France two years ago and now ably translated to English, by Sam Taylor — with constant tension, the beauty of Heatwave is that the dead boy becomes something of a MacGuffin. The ensuing days, spent at a family campground where adolescent hookups are practically a mandated activity, see Leo spiraling into a classic teen crush that’s only rendered all the more intense by the narrator’s heightened emotional state. In a sense, the dead boy functions as a device to pull adult readers back into the vortex of adolescence.
If the body-burying is a bit of a stretch, Leo’s infatuation is all too relatable: he falls for a slightly older girl who genuinely likes him, but who gets frustrated at the clumsiness with which he does the dance of mutual attraction. Leo is just unchill, and we suspect that the wonderfully drawn Luce will end up with a guy who doesn’t think the Lohengrin prelude strikes the right tone for beach-blanket fumblings.
There’s a deliciously dark humor to Heatwave, but it’s not pointed or arch; it comes from the author’s precise observation of characters who fail to recognize the absurdity of their not-so-private passions. There’s a girl who wants to rub Leo off in an instant rebound from her disappointing encounter with a mutual friend who tried to make it with her but became terrified when he realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew. (In a monologue that may provide the book’s most genuinely bleak moment, the friend describes relying on memories of pornography to stimulate his organ in the midst of what, to most other guys, would itself be a porn-worthy encounter.) Then there’s the camp director, a man in a literal bunny suit who doesn’t appreciate Leo’s less-than-festive mien; and Leo’s parents, the victims of a dinner at which their son acidly throws their good-hearted interest back in their faces.
It’s an impressively cinematic book for one so interior; we see Leo from both inside and out, perfectly understanding why Luce can only take so much of him. Audiobook narrator Joe Eyre gives an enthralling performance that’s all the more impressive for its unrelentingly bitter in-character affect. With life bursting all around him, Leo feels trapped by death; by the end of the book, we realize that may just be his normal state of being. For all its darkness, though, Heatwave is a world you won’t want to leave. When you’re forced to, you’d be well-advised to hit play on Lohengrin.