Publication Year: 2004
Tags: Gay, Coming-of-Age
From the Goodreads synopsis: Noah York is a closeted gay teenager with a foul mouth, a critical disposition, and plenty of material for his tirades. After his father dies, Noah’s mother, a temperamental poet, takes a teaching job in a small New Hampshire town, far from Chicago and the only world Noah has known. While Noah gets along reasonably with his mother, the crumbling house they try to renovate quickly reveals dark secrets, via dusty Mason jars they discover interred between walls. The jars contain scraps of letters, poems, and journal entries, and eventually reconstructs a history of pain and violence that drives a sudden wedge between Noah and his mother. Fortunately, Noah finds an unexpected ally in J.D., a teenager down the street who has family troubles of his own.
** spoiler alert ** After reading all the hype on the cover, I was ready for this book to be nothing short of brilliant. A gay coming-of-age novel, with a high school senior narrator (Noah) falling for a junior (J.D.), published in the early part of the new millennium — surely, this will contain new insights and reactions, new ways of discovering this anciently modern accursed blessing called sexuality and self? Alas, despite some critics comparing the book to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (itself, a book I was unimpressed with) and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (which is supposed to be, and is, a hilariously comic novel), I was sadly disappointed. As a satirical novel, it’s pedestrian; as a novel about gay relationships and coming out, it’s a travesty.
The first 80 or so pages was ordinary to the point of being cliché, as we build up to the obligatory “first disastrous sexual experience moment,” and another 30 pages to the equally obligatory “I was wrong, Noah, I hate the girl, I really want you” moment. Out of 244 pages, this is a big chunk of build-up. By page 141, we get the “Oh my God we’re found out” cliché, followed by the “Getting beaten up by the high school jocks” cliché a dozen or so pages later. A not-quite-as-cliché happening has Noah’s lover moving into his (Noah’s) home and J.D.’s family literally moving out of town and abandoning the boy. The ending, not quite “happily ever after” but comparatively upbeat for all that, is anti-climactic, not to mention more than a little unbelievable.
The vast majority of this book is not so much about Noah and J.D.’s romance as it is of Noah’s belief that anything good has to be paid for, quite possibly with blood. Noah’s father has long since passed — died of a heart attack in his study, and it was young Noah who found him. His mother is a borderline psychotic (made so, we discover, by having been raped by her own father), who tears up the house in which they live to look for clues about the previous owner. Said previous owner was also crazy, and ended up killing his wife and the child she carried that wasn’t his. As we later find, J.D.’s mother was also raped, and J.D. is the result; this explains why she hates him so much, and why J.D.’s father is a cowardly drunkard who allows his wife to beat the boy on a regular basis.
In the midst of this melodramatic turn of synchronicity, I find myself over-using the word “cliché,” and with reason: The word “trite” simply is too mild an epithet, and my thesaurus is already creaking under the weight of such words as “pedestrian” and “hackneyed.” How many rape/murder/incest clichés can we dump into one story? The various rages, obsessions, breakdowns, shattering of families… it’s far too much for anyone to follow, much less dare to care about and deal with. Generally, they don’t deal with it — J.D.’s family simply disappears, leaving the boy with “that pervert” (oh, is that the part we’re supposed to be focusing on?). Noah’s mother eventually gets some psychiatric help, and we assume she’s going to get better. She’s the only one really accepting of the boys’ relationship; in fact, she knew about Noah’s homosexuality long before he would even admit it to himself. So the one person who accepts him is psychotic. Well, there’s a ringing endorsement. As Noah keeps pointing out, there’s a price to pay.
Oh — yet one more cliché: J.D.’s ex-girlfriend gets to confront him, to say that it’s Noah’s fault for leading him into this perversion, and her preacher says that he can help J.D. come back to God, otherwise J.D. is going to burn in hell. I count that as one quick jab at “conversion therapy” and the ex-gay ministry (both of which, I thoroughly agree, need as much jabbing as we can give them).
It’s no picnic being in high school. Anyone who says how much fun they had in their high school years is delusional, outright lying, or was one of those “popular” ones who, thirty years later, is running his own Amway business and hasn’t had an original thought in his life. Add into this vitriolic mix discovering that one is gay, and you’ve got quite a horrible time of it, even (especially?) now.
What seems to be missing in this angst-ridden novel of the horrors of being a teen is some sort of (for lack of a better term) focus. So much happens outside of Noah’s exploration and reconciliation of himself that it seems that the book isn’t so much about him as it’s about how being gay is nothing compared with everyone else’s rape, incest, murder, child abandonment, and general psychosis.
I wish that author Bart Yates had decided to tell a story about a boy and his lover, rather than adding in so much other drama and madness that it obscures nearly every aspect of the relationship between the (presumably) primary characters. Tell a love story, or tell a story of crazy people who have among them one comparatively normal person who falls in love. This book seems to be screaming, “There’s nothing wrong with me — hell, I’m just gay, and everyone else is criminally insane. See? Being gay isn’t nearly as bad as all this, even though I have to take you, Constant Reader, through all this sewage in order to pound that point into your head.”
I think I’ll go back to reading Patricia Nell Warren; her classic works, such as The Front Runner and The Fancy Dancer, are much more compelling stories of coming to terms with one’s sexuality, as well as the fear and joy involved in coming to find a true lover.