Mandelo’s Debut Novel ‘Summer Sons’ Explores Gender, Fuel and Ghosts in the Blood

Photo: Courtesy of Debra Gillis.

Gasoline is undead. Petro-masculinity is a revenant. These hills run thick with ghosts.

Since fuel is a crucible of Appalachian identity, especially in the minds of outsiders, it matters whether the emerging discourse on “petro-masculinity” is a story we might ourselves tell differently. Kentucky author Lee Mandelo attempts to do just that in their debut novel “Summer Sons.”

The term itself was coined by political scientist Cara Daggett in her essay “Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire.” She puts into words what many of us have suspected for a long time: conservative, white cisgender men are more likely than any other group in the U.S. to deny climate change, and they sometimes parade their denialism through performative fuel expenditure. That includes acts like rolling coal, the altering of diesel engines to produce plumes of black smoke in their wake, or the so-called “Trump Highway Rallies.” 

These are reactions to both climate and gender trouble, taken together. Fuel in these instances is as much about socio-political identity as it is economics. Whatever outsiders might think, petro-masculinity is not unique to the rural Deep South and Southern Appalachia. But it nevertheless draws attention to the complicated intersections of culture and fossil fuels here in the Mountain South.

Dominant Appalachian gender formations like the petro-masculine are undead — born across the color line, extractive regimes and the sweet nothings of industry barons. Like the formation of fossil fuels themselves, these gender formations fester over time and grow stronger, coming back to claim the living. We walk among the possessed.

But petro-masculinity tells only one version of the fuel story. As Mandelo’s book attests, Appalachia contains multitudes.

“Summer Sons” traffics in many important tropes of Southern and Appalachian literature — the afterlives of the plantation, sentient land, haunted genealogies, folklore and oral history, academic opportunism, the deep places of the Earth, gentry and drugs — but revises these tropes through fossil-fueled gender and sexual frictions. As Mandelo writes, “Possibilities swirled in the smell of gasoline.” 

Gravedigging (with) the Carboniferous 

Andrew is bereaved. His late beloved, Eddie, haunts him body and soul. As in, Eddie’s remnant has attached itself to Andrew, coaxing him, sometimes violently, to solve the mystery of Eddie’s death and their strange, shared connection to the spirit world. 

Eddie’s final text message (“come home i’ll be waiting”) beckons Andrew back to the South, back to where they grew up together in the hills and the heart of many troubles. There, all kinds of ghosts are waiting. 

Set mostly in Nashville, Andrew’s story is stretched between a graduate program at Vanderbilt University and a crew of queer and trans street racers haunting the rural edge. There are Old Guard professors trying to steal Andrew’s soul (literally and figuratively), and fuel fetishists trying to set his soul free (again, literally and figuratively).

“After midnight on a pitch-dark stretch of road, tasting the finer edge of human fragility in the glare of wrong-way headlights…death was a pressure on the sides of the neck, gripping where the pulse beat hardest.” And we’re talking death incarnate here. Eddie’s Hellcat is haunted.

The rush Andrew gets both from communing with his dead lover and playing chicken at breakneck speeds, “deliciously reckless,” modulates petro-masculinity according to queer logics. And this isn’t a generalized queerness. It lives here in the Mountain South. A quare-ness, some might say. 

Death is not the goal, but instead, an intimacy with ghostly trouble, looking deep into its eyes, confronting its sway on the living. When leaving the region isn’t an option, deriving pleasure from confronting its problems becomes a queer method of survival. Andrew finds this life in proximity to fuel and fellow queers. He wakes to the smell of exhaust.

When we exhume energies from the land, we alter those forces as well as our own lives. Appalachians know this better than most, seeing how coal and natural gas have shaped and reshaped the Mountains. It is fitting, then, that Andrew’s and Eddie’s spiritual troubles begin underground, trapped in a cavern in northeast Tennessee beneath Eddie’s family plantation. Here in the unforgiving dark, under the ghostly burden of racialized extractive histories, Eddie brings Andrew into the haunted fold with a perverse sacrament. They imbibe one another’s blood in a kind of eldritch gay sex. Eddie transfers his family curse to Andrew, queering the notion of lineage and ironizing a stereotypical Appalachian relation to the land.

Mandelo is right to acknowledge that these interstices emerge from histories of racialized extraction. We remember, for instance, that during Reconstruction in Southern Appalachia, Black laborers supposedly emancipated from the agricultural extraction of the plantation were often forced by the Black Codes into fossil fuel extraction in convict coal mines. The petro-masculine, as with many extractive aesthetics, upholds this legacy with its white nationalism, calcifying toxic formations of overpowered white masculinity.

Andrew’s petro-queer cohort is mostly white. One of the few Black characters in the novel, a graduate student at Vanderbilt who falls prey to white faculty abusing his labor, refuses to venture outside the city, understandably wary of cultural ghosts in the hinterlands. Yet, in a perverse iteration of environmental-social justice, Andrew ultimately uses gasoline to burn down the plantation where his and Eddie’s curse first emerged. A product of extraction ironically helps resolve the ghosts of extraction. 

There are surely fossil fuel relations in Appalachia that exist somewhere between the mainstream environmentalist’s wholesale foreclosure and the petro-masculine Trump cult. Mandelo attempts to explore alternatives through queer and trans characters, presenting what we could call a petro-queer or petro-trans-masculinity. Andrew and his queer and trans mischief-makers thrive on the dangerous promise of fossil-fueled speed. They build community around this risk. And they thwart industry’s cultural meddling, even if they can’t or won’t separate themselves from fuel. 

How might we revise the petro-masculine by looking to queer and trans people who also get off on burning fuel — not to redeem fossil fuels but to understand them more clearly, how fuels work on our lives and help us build our gender formations? If white nationalist petro-masculinity makes a spectacle of climate change, its mitigation could only be imagined by an approach that takesseriously the mutual constitutivity of gender, sex, race, and fuel. 

This is a different kind of environmentalism.

Nicholas Reich (he/they) is a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University. They study literatures of the US Deep South and Appalachia, gender and sexuality, and energy infrastructures.

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