Thursday, November 3, 2011

BOY MEETS BOY: A NOVEL FOR GAY TEENS (and the rest of us)

The first couple of chapters of David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (Knopf, 2003) take some getting used to. I had to keep rereading lines.

What is this...a fantasy?

Paul is a sophomore in high school. He is also a happily adjusted, fully out gay adolescent. His kindergarten teacher outed him by writing on his report card, “PAUL IS DEFINITELY GAY AND HAS A VERY GOOD SENSE OF SELF.” (Paul eyeballed the document on his teacher’s desk. Apparently, Paul was also an advanced reader. Alphabet, schmalphbet.) In third grade, he campaigned for class president with the slogan, “VOTE FOR ME...I’M GAY!” And, yes, he won. He had a boy date for the fifth grade dance and formed a gay-straight alliance in sixth grade along with a fourth-grade lesbian.

Is this an alternate universe? Is this set in 2211?!

The backstory isn’t all rosy. Paul was beat up in eighth grade as the two perpetrators grunted gay slurs, but a group of friends from the fencing team come to the rescue instead of being the passive bystanders we often read about in news articles. Another student regularly refers to him as Gay Boy, but it is almost a term of endearment. This is, after all, a high school where the quarterback of the football team is a drag queen with the moniker Infinite Darlene.

Oh, why couldn’t I have gone to this high school? Why couldn’t we all?

Paul’s self-acceptance and the matter-of-fact manner in which his family and peers regard his gayness make him a fictional gay hero. Perhaps even a superhero whose superpower is self-confidence, a mighty elusive trait among many gays, young and old.

Once the groundwork is laid and the surprise passes, Boy Meets Boy reads like a typical young adult novel. Paul is the centerpiece of a love triangle, the other players being Kyle, a former boyfriend who freaked out and dumped Paul but wants him back, and Noah, the new kid in town who is recovering from his own bad breakup with another guy. Guys openly dating guys—okay, it’s an atypical typical young adult novel.

I have to admit that there were times when I was awed by Paul, even envious. At other times, I wondered why Levithan took such a leap beyond reality. How common are these love triangles? I can’t stumble across a love line, let alone a triangle. Sheesh.

Thank goodness the author adds ANOTHER gay character, Tony. He’s a quiet thinker, living in a household where religion guides the family’s lifestyle and his parents’ response to the fact he is gay. I suspect gay readers will relate more to Tony than Paul. We may strive to evolve into a persona like Paul’s, but we face fears and obstacles as does Tony. The difference between Tony and many teens struggling with their sexuality is that Tony has a friend who is a supporter, a role model, even a nudge-nik. Tony is not alone.

This is a refreshing work of gay fiction. Aside from a little kissing, there is no sex. There is no gay hustler. There is no drug usage. While Infinite Darlene may be overly dramatic, the shock value arises from the normalcy of the characters and their interactions. Boy Meets Boy is a quick read that will surely help struggling gays to envision a better reality. It may get better sooner rather than later. If not, Paul and Tony may be the fictional friends needed to get through the now.


Rick Modien said...

I'm a little confused, having not read the book.

So the world around Paul is exactly like the one we all live in today, with people who hate and bully gay people? Yet Paul, despite all this, is perfectly happy with his sexual orientation and well-adjusted, the antithesis of what we all are, especially at his young age? I have to think about this one for a minute to understand what's going on here, and why Levithan would spend his precious writing time on such a book.

Okay. I'm back.

I'm all for a positive portrayal of gay people, and for providing readers with a vision of what circumstances for us could be like. But isn't this story selling a false bill of goods (is that the expression?). Couldn't it be creating expectations the real world is like this, with confident, well-adjusted young gay people out there? What is Levithan's intention with his story?

If I'd read this book when I was much younger and being bullied, how would I have received it? Frankly, I would have been frustrated, even angry. I think Levithan's message must be, be self-accepting, be self-possessed, don't let the world and its bad attitude toward gays get to you. In other words, be all the things none of us had a hope of being when we were actually going through it.

Why would I have needed to read this book when there was no hope I could be anything like Paul? Okay, I give. I don't get it. Why help gays to envision a better reality, as you put it? To what end? What does Levithan's story hope to achieve by doing that?

Rural Gay said...

Hi Rick,
I think you should read it and not just go with my take on it. Paul is not perfect, but his problems aren't about his sexual identity. I believe Levithan provides a vision wherein gay teens can focus on regular teen angst.

The anger you mention would be the same type of anger a gay teen today might feel upon viewing countless pie-in-the-sky testimonials that "It Gets Better". I would have dismissed the words of Ellen Degeneres, Dan Savage and some unknown twenty year olds with "Easy for you to say. You don't really know what I'm going through. It's different. It's harder." Yet unconsciously the words would have mattered and, on rosier days, inspired.

Same goes for Levithan's book. Imagine a place where a young guy can be gay and it doesn't matter. It just is what it is. Again, pie-in-the-sky drivel on most days, but deep down I would have been thrilled to have read this, just as I was when I read E.M. Forster's "Maurice" as a twenty-year-old living smack in the middle of the Bible Belt in Texas.

I do believe this is worthwhile reading for teens.