Fun Camp by Gabe Durham (A Review)

By Tyler Crumrine
durham-fun-camp-cover

Publishing Genius

160 Pages | $15

Gabe Durham is taking adolescence by storm. Founder and editor of the recently kickstarted Boss Fight Books, a press dedicated to publishing 33⅓-eque reflections on video games, Durham’s debut novel, FUN CAMP, pays tribute to, and commentates on, another formative impact on youth: summer camp.

Fun Camp is a small property with a small lake outside a small town just far enough from civilization to be considered part of the wilderness. Separated into seven sections, one for each day of the week, FUN CAMP chronicles a typical camp session through a series of letters, lists, and monologues from its campers and staff. Among the inhabitants are Billy, the first time camper who grows more and more audacious in his letters home as he converts to the Fun Camp lifestyle, Chef Grogg, the off-kilter year-long staffer who occasionally corners campers to deliver vaguely threatening gibberish laden advice, and Tad Gunnick, the messianic high school senior who shares years of camp wisdom with his disciples.

FUN CAMP is nothing short of hilarious. Durham has mastered the art of the run-on skit, weaving Fun Camp’s eccentric and endearing characters throughout. Short and sweet, each piece is tantalizing enough to satisfy your sweet tooth while small enough to avoid attracting raccoons overnight.

Beneath its awkward dance moves and Pranks of the Century, however, FUN CAMP is also the best description of summer camp I’ve read. Born and raised on a similar Fun Camp in Western PA, and later counseling for six summers in row, camp living is something I know all too well. There’s a healthy dose of Wet Hot American Summer to FUN CAMP, but Durham still manages to capture the joys and absurdity of summer camp and the people who go there.

At Fun Camp, priority numero uno is that everyone has fun. Or rather, admits that they’re having fun. On a nature hike, one counselor says to his less-than-nature-savvy campers:

Doesn’t this feel great? Couldn’t you just die, how pretty all this is? The trick is to tap into the you that already loves all this. To let the bones of your spirit break free. (32)

Fun Camp uses a variety of methods to enforce fun among its campers (including food-portion-size reduction), but the idea isn’t that they’re teaching the campers HOW to have fun, it’s that they’re bringing them to a point where they accept that they’ve been having fun all along.

A close second priority is evangelism, a theme present throughout FUN CAMP. In one of the first camp-wide addresses, a head counselor lets everyone know that the perma-staff have “asked that we not try to convert them this year, even while smiling, even when they could sorely use our message” (12). Likewise, in preparation for skit night, the camp advises that skits “have a spiritual message, though don’t go out and say it” (22).

Like most wilderness camps, Fun Camp is almost certainly church sponsored, and for those not already indoctrinated into camp lifestyle, rules are in place to make sure that campers are put into a position where they’re ready to accept it.

If someone mocks you, laugh with them. During small groups, open up. During one-on-ones, be real. During quiet times, emote. No not singing. No unfun thoughts. No holding back. (3)

As with their latent love of nature, the idea is that if campers allow themselves to open up, to be honest with themselves and their counselors, they’ll realize the capital T truths that they’ve believed deep down all along.

Over the course of the week, counselors have a multitude of opportunities to help campers along through a number of metaphors. It’s similar to the Warm Fuzzies campers send to encourage, and more often flirt with, each other. As one counselor says,

Remember, you campers with less personality, it really is a numbers game—if you write enough notes, you’re gonna get a reply. Even telemarketers make a sale now and then. (7)

And camp is the perfect sales location. Separated from their families and surrounded by cooler, older kids and counselors, there’s a heightened pressure to emulate the most fun among us (usually someone dreamy singing worship songs over an acoustic guitar). This phenomenon is spelled out most clearly in the piece “Logistically, A Real Momentum Wrecker” where a camper admits that they bought and listened to all of David Bazan’s records about finding God just because they once thought a fellow camper was hot and kind of a bad ass for talking to Bazan at a concert one time.

Regardless of whether the Truths Fun Camp espouses are capital T or not, though, almost all camps operate on, and perpetuate, a kind of cult of personality. Acceptance of fun, as well as Jesus, is more likely a result of campers molding themselves into Tad Gunnick’s image rather than the Lord’s. As one counselor realizes after spending years as a camper and even more on staff:

I never loved playing steal the bacon with ten-pound sacks of flour. I never loved Greased Watermelon Relay. Oh Fun Camp, when did my brain invert my face? When I at last remember how to lower the edges of my mouth, it’s already bedtime. (49)

But that’s how adolescence works. Whether it’s contained to puberty or stretched though your early 20’s, it’s a constant process of sorting out what you really want for your life and what you’re just doing to fit in. Most campers return to the valley after their mountaintop camp experiences (“I said I was going to change and for awhile I did change but then I went back.” [139]), but some of it may stick. Even head counselor Dave realizes this, and by the end of camp, expresses his true feelings:

I want so much for you as a gaggle of campers, but as individuals I can barely keep your faces in focus. As I look out on the field of you now, huddling up in your sleeping bags, I see selves feeding selves feeding selves. I see, “What do these people think of me?” and “Am I unique?” and “Am I funny?” and “Am I worthy of love?” And to all those questions, I offer a hearty resounding shrug[. . .] There’s a confidence chemical that suddenly gets produced like crazy in puberty that explains why five-sixths of you think you know so much[. . .] The goal is to harness that chemical and to run with it as far as you can so that when doubt catches up, you’ll be surrounded by people who angle their bodies toward you and nod brightly when you speak. (145)

What FUN CAMP does best is help you to look back on those phases in your life when you’ve been most impressionable, take stock, and laugh. To realize how desperately you tried to be a Tad, how little his camp popularity really meant, and grin at the comedy of it all. To appreciate life for all it’s absurdities and eccentricities, and prepare for the next season. FUN CAMP is a novel about growing up through the eyes of those who think they’ve grown up already, and perfect for anyone who’s ever jumped off of something tall in hopes that everyone else was watching.

Tyler Crumrine is a Pittsburgh-based dramaturg and the editor of Plays Inverse, a publisher of plays and play-like literature. His writing can be found in Everywhere is the New New York and in music sections of the Pittsburgh City Paper. THE HOLY GHOST PEOPLE, a new play-in-verse by Joshua Young, will be published by Plays Inverse in early 2014. More information soon at www.playsinverse.com.

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