Every semi-significant occasion now has an anthology (or six) to accompany it: Father’s Day, divorce, and now that painful rite of passage known as summer camp. Sleepaway, a collection of short stories and essays, doesn’t dwell on the heartwarming bonding sessions and spirited fireside sing-alongs that still make their way into every cinematic portrayal of the camp experience. For that you’ll have to pick up ex–Disney honcho Michael Eisner’s Camp (Warner, 182 pp., $22.95), a relentlessly cheerful tribute to the old-school Vermont spot where Eisner—and New Yorker writer John McPhee, who pens the introduction—learned to be a corporate behemoth, er, man.
In Sleepaway we find literary sophisticates looking back with bittersweetness at this odd moment out of time that offered a temporary escape from the restraints of normal social life. David Sedaris recalls a summer at a Greek camp when he learned to live up to the “faggot” taunt, and Mark Oppenheimer passes on lessons he learned at the lefty camps of his youth, like the fact that nudity is not always sexy—especially not when sported by counselors in clogs. In the best opening gambit of the bunch, Terry Galloway announces: “When I was twelve I tried to drown myself during a swimming competition at the Texas Lion’s Camp for Crippled Children.” The hodgepodge of short stories and memoirs doesn’t always coalesce, since the fiction (including splendid, previously published pieces by writers like Margaret Atwood and ZZ Packer) makes the more casual essays feel shapeless and drab by comparison. But there are enough piercing tales to make you rejoice in your adulthood, never again to be sent away to the lonely foreign republic of sleepaway camp.