Since it came out last fall, Lee Mandelo’s Summer Sons has been hailed as an adherent of the “dark academia” aesthetic. And with good reason: the novel is set in the land surrounding a prestigious southern university, overflowing with menacing history, occult knowledge, and the attractive trappings of prestige. It follows Andrew, an outsider to the academy, as he investigates his best friend’s mysterious death, falling in with crowds both intellectual and rowdy, and struggling with literal and figurative ghosts in the process. It’s also, as with so many iterations of dark academia, undeniably queer. Horny, closeted, and haunted, Andrew is basically the king of dark academia protagonists (or the jester, depending on how you look at it).
But Summer Sons is also doing something unique with these generic elements, asking new questions and revealing fissures and cracks along their seams. The academy housing Andrew’s mystery isn’t an ivory tower covered in creeping ivy and fanboys of classic literature. Instead it is something at once more specific to its setting and truer to academia as it actually exists: a plantation house on stolen land, milling with an uneven mix of well-meaning white, middle class voyeurs and marginalized people, navigating disconnection (and often newfound) privilege. And Andrew isn’t just queer: he wants, specifically, to have sex with men.
Like any good protagonist, Andrew straddles two worlds; in this case the storied halls of the academy and the fast cars, fist fights, and bonfires that make up a certain brand of poor (largely male) young adulthood in the south. In true form, the borders of these worlds are porous, more trap-laden thoroughfares than distinct spheres. And vitally, queerness exists in both spaces; it may take different forms, but it is undeniably present. Regardless of which world he’s exploring in any given scene, Andrew is in danger; regardless of where he seeks answers, he finds only his desires reflected back at him—in the adrenaline rush of near death and screeching tires, in the bruising force of Sam’s mouth, and in the pages of old books and transcripts, still warm from the fingers of their last reader.
In the dark academia of Summer Sons, academia and masculinity are alike in being poisonous and desirable, mechanisms of self-understanding and self-destruction, and they’re neither of them resolvable into the easy answers Andrew seeks. Where dark academia often romanticizes libraries and repressed queer desire (and to be clear: same), Summer Sons shines a black light on both, consummates them, and makes them simultaneously sexier and more sinister in the process. The novel is a disruption of the dark academia genre and a fulfillment of its promises simultaneously.
Whether dark academia is a subgenre or an aesthetic (or where the line is between these concepts) is up for debate. Its fans simply know it when we see it. Its historical antecedents though, are pretty much undeniable, with the English boarding school story and the gothic informing dark academia’s every nook and cranny. Dark academia is also, more often than not, queer. The connection to the English school story brings with it heart-wrenching gay yearning and subtext conveyed through covert classical references and those Shakespearean sonnets (you know the ones). From Brideshead Revisited to Maurice, the setting of the university is one where young men historically went to discover themselves away from the strictures of home, and in the process discover their own desires.
The characters in these nineteenth and twentieth century pages examined the boundaries of a certain form of masculinity, one defined as much by whiteness, wealth, and privilege, as by an acknowledgement of their harms and limitations. Dark academia has drawn from these examples accordingly, with even Donna Tartt’s ostensibly “straight” novel The Secret History essentially functioning as a parable of self-sabotaging repression. Often, though, the romanticized aspects of the dark academia aesthetic in online spaces like Tumblr and Instagram have led less to a critique of masculinity than to the presentation of an alternative: a more modern, progressive, queer idea of gender, one that keeps the cozy sweaters but throws out the noxious power dynamics.
Comparatively, Summer Sons stands out as a novel that addresses a different form of masculinity altogether than the wealth and privilege of Brideshead or Maurice. Rooted in its Tennessee setting, this masculinity is largely poor and Appalachian—more beer and party blackouts than scotch in a leather-clad study, more souped-up used car than top-of-line racer (more Alec, we might say, than Maurice). And just as significantly, the novel takes this masculinity head-on rather than eliding it—shows queer men whose queerness is rooted in a desire for masculinity, rather than a simple alternative to (hetero) masculinity.
It’s not, by any means, an uncomplicated desire. Andrew’s attraction to men is—at least in part—an attraction to danger, to bringing yourself to the brink, to the battle of wills, and to the playing-out and playing-with of unequal power. His lifelong friendship with Eddie was codependent—even toxic—and his grief over his death constantly mingles with the sense of having lost an unreachable, idealized version of himself. He treats their mutual friend (and mutual ex) Del horribly, as a stepping stone or mediator to his relationship with Eddie—he may be obsessed with another man, but as long as he’s using a woman for sex, it’s not in a gay way. The line in Summer Sons between “wanting” and “wanting to be” is constantly blurred (a phenomenon that will be familiar to many queer readers), and Andrew’s unwillingness to acknowledge his desire almost destroys the possibility of actualizing either. Even his newfound attraction to Eddie’s friend Sam is troubled, discovered as it is through the thrill of racing and the heady haze of intoxication, not to mention an extensive murder investigation. Are we as readers meant to root for these crazy kids to get together, or to see their attraction as harmful, unhealthy, maybe even dangerous? Just as the line between “wanting” and “wanting ot be” is blurred, so too is the line between sex and violence. For Andrew to embrace his desire may be to embrace pleasure and self-knowledge, but it may also end in absolute destruction.
Whether he remains closeted or not, Andrew is courting danger in the domain of masculinity. Just because he wants—and just because we as readers are accustomed to wanting our heroes to recognize and obtain their desires—does not make those desires “good” or particularly healthy. Summer Sons is far from wallowing in despair, however, at the prospect of living with this paradox. Sam’s fierce protection of his loved ones, Riley’s tenacity and kindness, and Ethan’s generosity offer living testaments to the good that can be woven into the patterns of masculinity. And gay sex—well, that’s a game changer in-and-of itself. Unlike The Secret History’s Richard, Andrew does not take his secrets—queer or otherwise—to the grave. And unlike the characters in countless English school stories that preceded him, Andrew doesn’t find himself through literary or historical depictions of queerness. In Summer Sons, Andrew fucks.
So many dark academia narratives in the past have presented queer desire through either dead-end, self-destructive repression (Charles in Brideshead Revisited, in the most on-the-nose move ever, even converts to Catholicism), or as a sanitized, platonic, or even theoretical endeavor. Still others, written for younger readers or simply cleaned up for mainstream audiences, depict romance without sex, with queerness often relegated to a character’s identity, rather than as something they do. Andrew’s desire for men, meanwhile, is acknowledged and consummated, found and forged in bit lips and bruised skin, tangled sheets and solid walls. These scenes are hot as a southern summer, at least in part because they don’t deny sex’s bodily realities. The murky line between sex and violence here is acknowledged and embraced, made into a consensual testing of boundaries, a shared act of passion and vulnerability. It is, undeniably, gay sex. Visceral and intense, it’s easy to see how Andrew could be pulled from his endless self-centered ruminations by the experience, back into his very skin.
Andrew may have come to the university to be with Eddie—to “find himself” like the queer schoolboys before him—but with Eddie dead and Andrew drawn to the “wrong” crowd off-campus, it’s not through the academy that he realizes his sexuality. Grief forces his hand, and, in a run-down party house in the woods, his own pleasure-seeking body seals the deal.
If Andrew’s self-actualization occurs, not in the academy itself but on its margins, then what—beyond setting—does Summer Sons have to say about the academic aspect of dark academia? As with the novel’s exploration of masculinity, the answer is rooted in specificity of place and time, expectations laid by genre and disrupted by lived experience.
The gothic, just as much as the English boarding school story, is integral to DA’s tone, themes, and aesthetics. In addition to its generally spooky vibes, these gothic roots invite us to expect the reemergence of past violence, the crossing of super/natural boundaries, and a claustrophobic emphasis on space and place (the manor house, the monastery, the wealthy English university). Check, check, and check. Gothic fiction in its original form also often centered the death rattle of an old way of life, specifically the crumbling aristocratic order (more recent gothics, of course, pick up more contemporaneous or specific examples of those in power attempting to maintain it).
Dark academia often toes the line between a “return” to an old order—in this case, an intellectual elite—and an illustration of its decline. Its emphasis on leisurely reading and intellectual curiosity arguably convey a desire for us to return to the “life of the mind”—in particular through cultural and humanistic inquiry—without the trappings of capital that define today’s neoliberal university. More than one critic of DA before me has written about this desire—to reclaim and transform intellectual pursuit for marginalized students, to experience catharsis at the self-destruction of the elite, to romanticize and critique in the very same breath.
Summer Sons’ version of academia is perhaps less romanticized than the typical pastiches of Oxbridge and New England Ivies we find in dark academia. It’s more American (more southern, specifically), more modern, and—to those still masochistic enough to be working in academia today—more recognizable. Overworked TAs, publish-or-perish mentalities, and unglamourous study carrels reveal the neoliberal university at work in all its glory. And this immersion of Summer Sons in contemporary capitalist higher ed makes its take on dark academia—and its accompanying critique of the intellectual elite—altogether different from most of its predecessors.
If Andrew turns to academia to solve Eddie’s murder, Eddie turned to academia to understand himself. He too was solving a mystery—but for Eddie, the books and oral histories and, ahem, “community-engaged research” were selfish means to selfish ends. And who could blame him for wanting to know what happened in that cave, all those years ago? Who could blame him for wanting to understand the landscape that swallowed him and Andrew up, spit them back out as something new, something connected?
Andrew, though, experiences the university secondhand, even when he walks its paths with his own feet. Sure, his research is also a means-to-an-end—but the end in question, in this case, is “The” end: death, and whatever terrors come after it. When he looks back on Eddie’s research, he is wading through carnage of all kinds—stories told either by victors or pulled from the mouths of locals that are treated more as curiosities than respected storytellers; stories dug up by the hands of a wealthy schoolkid, and locked and stored in an ivory tower—away from the prying eyes of their protagonists—on land that houses only the city’s whitest and wealthiest.
Everywhere Andrew turns, ghosts of this acquisition abound. West, Andrew’s mentor and supposedly an ascended scion of the elite academy, is belittled and robbed within those very walls, his own research-as-means-of-self-understanding stolen by a white professor. As a Black academic, he experiences the violence and injustice of American education not just as a haunting from the past, but as a contemporary lived experience. Even Andrew—white, myopic, and driven to ignore the trappings of student life entirely (SUCH a stressful reading experience, might I add)—recognizes how West is treated. His discomfort rubbing elbows with rich professors pales (pun intended) in comparison.
The “old order” of Summer Sons is quite literally dying, but not-yet-dead. There is no gap, the novel seems to say, between the plantation/colonizing university and the neoliberal/gentrifying university—neither a romanticizable past to return to, nor a progressive present from which to critique it. Power runs like a current between them—between the past and the present, between yesterday’s wealth and privilege and today’s—at the very heart of knowledge and education as we know them.
And yet, still Andrew and others find tools here to solve the mysteries of the past. Still, some others—like Riley—are lucky to find kinship, community, and opportunity. Still, we as readers are drawn to the classrooms and alcoves of the university in fiction, because there’s something appealing about them, something at once “dark” that we need to (re)solve, and clarifying, a promise of enlightenment, a promise of time and space to think and consider who we might be and what (and who) we might want. The toxicity of power and history can’t erase academia’s pull because they are part and parcel of it.
Endings and Beginnings
I’m not arguing that Summer Sons’ portrayal of masculinity and academia are the same or even that they map onto one another (academia can’t be reduced to only “toxic masculinity” any more than any institution made up of diverse constituents can—even in Summer Sons’ case, we might argue that “toxic whiteness” is more the concern). Instead, it’s interesting to look at what these themes are doing in the novel—providing ways for Andrew to explore who he is, confront his past, and acknowledge what he wants, without skipping over what makes those processes fraught, painful, and, um, “problematic.” Together, they bridge an unspoken divide between mind and body—drawing out truths that lie somewhere of and in between.
One feature that both English boarding school stories and the gothic have in common is their relationship to the “coming-of-age” story. Whether they’re finding love or esoteric secrets, the characters of these stories are typically being introduced to the social worlds they’ll inhabit as adults. Summer Sons, as with so many aspects of its relationship to DA, asks a new question of this trope, rather than correcting it. Grief, it posits, for all its connection to the process of coming-of-age, is also a disruption of it. Andrew might never have explored his queerness, had Eddie lived. But the time he wasted—and the time he lost—with Eddie, not fully acknowledging his love for him, brings its own form of grief, its own abrupt halt in Andrew’s path.
If knowledge and desire both open and close opportunities for Andrew, so too does his grief. The novel’s ending is open-ended, perhaps even unsatisfying to those that sought a queer happily-ever-after. But it’s fitting, too. Summer Sons refuses to look away from the darkness in dark academia, and sometimes that necessitates that endings and beginnings merge, that characters don’t finish growing up by the end of the story. Resolutions are for books in libraries, an intellectual exercise with a definitive answer. And Andrew is creating something new, instead.
Em Nordling is a writer & PhD student in Atlanta, GA.