Conversation with a Bookseller: ‘Lost in Summerland’ by Barrett Swanson
In late February of 2020, Barrett Swanson volunteered as a victim at Disaster City, a sprawling training facility for first responders. The coronavirus had not yet reached pandemic proportions, and it quickly exceeded some of our worst-case scenarios by the time his essay was published in Harper’s in June. Only a few months into the uncertain timeline of the pandemic, Swanson reflects on his stint at Disaster City, where he feels as though he’s “playing a role in a palliative narrative,” and “instantiating a myth that the country repeatedly tells itself — that there was nothing we could’ve done, that no one can be blamed.”
The piece was so striking, I e-mailed the publisher and asked if they could send me a copy of his forthcoming essay collection, Lost in Summerland. Counterpoint sent a PDF, which I had printed at my local copy shop. On a sunny evening in August, I was on my couch, paging through the first essay “Notes from a Last Man,” when the Health Department called. The woman on the other line asked if I had spoken to the testing center. I put the book down and said no, no one had called me.
When I hosted book clubs, I often started by asking what everyone’s experience of the book was like — not if they liked it or disliked it, exactly, but whether it made them feel uncomfortable, for instance, or seen, or how it informed their lives off the page. For me, Lost in Summerland both arrived at a strange and pivotal time and captured these strange and pivotal times in remarkable prose. The book kept me company while I quarantined alone in my apartment, only leaving it to walk my dog, feeling eerily short of breath. I didn’t know it yet, but this marked the beginning of yet another long lonely spell, with extreme isolation backdropped by the pandemic’s peak, the election, and winter in Wisconsin. Throughout that time, I returned to certain films or books, including Lost in Summerland (and as I’ve already written, The Last Dance). Although comforting to return to the same pieces over and over, each time finding something new, I also felt alone in my reading of it — not knowing what anyone else would think, and wondering if it had simply struck me at an extraordinary time and place in my life, making the prose feel extraordinary.