In the summer of 1985, Ronald Reagan was just settling into his second term as president. Few people had heard of the internet. Americans were crowding theaters to watch Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future” and listening to Phil Collins’s “Sussudio.”
Harrisburg writer Richard Fellinger revisits that time in his emotionally charged second novel, “Summer of ‘85,” the story of a teenage romance at the Jersey Shore that reverberates in the life of a middle-aged man more than three decades later.
Fellinger teaches English and is director of the “Writing Wing” at Elizabethtown College, where he has worked since 2010, after being downsized from the job he says he deeply enjoyed and still misses as a Capitol reporter for a newspaper group.
A native of Altoona and a 1991 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Fellinger’s western Pennsylvania roots are evident in the Pirates decal and Steelers pennant on the wall of his college office, where he spoke recently via Zoom.
He and his wife have lived in the Harrisburg area for two decades, and central Pennsylvania readers will recognize some well-known local landmarks in “Summer of ‘85.”
In the novel, a shooting that takes the lives of 11 people in a Philadelphia hoagie shop sparks Harrisburg newspaper editorial page editor Dan Fehr’s memories of his brief relationship with Cara Cassaday, one of the victims, and quickly sets the novel in motion.
In the titular summer, Dan, who’s finished his first year at Penn State and is working as a night clerk at a Wildwood, N.J., boardwalk motel, meets Cara, a student at Millersville University who’s spending the summer waitressing at a nearby restaurant. Their mutual attraction, perhaps a little more ardent on Dan’s side, is clear.
In alternating chapters, a structure Fellinger says emerged naturally in the writing process, the novel shifts between a realistic account of the highs and lows of their relationship, one that ends abruptly just before the arrival of Labor Day and is never rekindled, and Dan’s life just on the far side of 50.
Early in the novel he learns that his wife, a Republican political consultant (Dan’s a “conflict avoidant” person whose political views are “center-left”) has been having an affair and plans to file for divorce. That news, coupled with the story of Cara’s sudden, violent death, plunges Dan into waves of introspection about the choices he’s made in his life and career.
He’s a flawed, but sympathetic, protagonist who’s struggling to reconcile the time when “anything in my life was possible” with all the ways his “promise went unfulfilled.”
Superficially, Dan’s angst might look like a garden-variety mid-life crisis, mingled with nostalgia about an idealized love, but the shocking end to Cara’s life adds a twist that casts his struggles in a fresh light.
Fellinger isn’t focused only on the emotional component of his story. He notes that he likes to write stories that touch on contemporary problems, pointing to the writer T. C. Boyle as something of a role model. He acknowledges that the issue of gun violence is one he’s “always been concerned about.”
In the late 1990s, he won a statewide award for his journalism on the issue for Philadelphia Weekly.
“I realize I brought some politics to this novel, and I’m OK with that,” he said. “I think certain social issues deserve to be written about, even in fiction. I know some people have a hard time swallowing that.”
But he admits to a certain frustration that his frank engagement with this issue may have cost him the opportunity to place his novel with a major publisher. An editor informed his agent at the time, “I really like the story, but I just can’t move forward with a book about a mass shooting.”
The newsroom scenes in “Summer of ‘85” also benefit from the 15 years that Fellinger spent as a working reporter. Acknowledging the challenges facing the newspaper business, he expressed his own frustration about getting meaningful local news.
“I’m concerned about how they’re able to cover the important developments in our communities for us—everything from school board meetings to the activities of our state senators and congress people,” he said.
Asked about his process, Fellinger responded that he tries to write most days, but isn’t rigorous about adhering to a strict schedule or word count. The words of the writer Isak Dinesen—“Write a little every day, without hope, with despair”—visible near his computer, are a source of inspiration. When it comes to advice to aspiring writers, he emphasized the importance of having a good editor and credits his publisher for helpful feedback on this ending of his novel.
“Summer of ‘85” has already attracted favorable attention in the literary world, including winning the 2018 Novel Excerpt Contest at Seven Hills Review. Fellinger’s no stranger to literary prizes. His short story collection, “They Hover Over Us,” won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award, and he’s been a nominee for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.
Regardless of its critical reception, Fellinger is satisfied with having this work reach a mass audience.
“I started with a story and let it go where it went,” he said. “And I’m really happy with where it ended up.”
“Summer of ‘85” by Richard Fellinger is available at most online and major bookstores.
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