If only there had been a Joe (aka JoDan) Bunch in my class in grade seven or eight. I’m thinking selfishly here. Poor Joe would have been brutalized by peers who would taunt him for painting one fingernail, streaking his hair and just being, well, as the title says, totally Joe. But I would have had someone to set the gay standard.
Some people have their identities whispering at them in sometimes conflicting inner voices. Not Joe. His identity loudly came into being at a young age, back when he was a four-year-old, walking the neighborhood in a dress and playing with his collection of seven Barbies.
If only I had had parents who were as enlightened, who did not fear what their inner voices told them about their young son, their Great Hope to become a doctor, the Prime Minister or a Right Winger on the Montreal Canadiens.
I thank author James Howe for introducing a younger generation to a memorable character with an irrepressible personality.
I can’t recall any Joes from my childhood. As far as I could tell, I was as Joe-y as it got. I came to know several Joes in my twenties, once I left Texas where even The Irrepressibles might have found a way to repress, given the unchecked speeches about eternal damnation and the occasional article about gun-toting good ol’ boys hunting for gays. In Los Angeles, I met Mason, an affectionate, often obnoxious force who learned to dish it out as a means to survive. I dated Evan, a makeup artist who scared me off with too much talk about my dire need for skin moisturizer. Sadly, Joes struggle for acceptance, even in gay circles.
Totally Joe is structured as a class writing assignment, an alphabetical autobiography, a year-long journal with Joe’s entries ranging from Addie, his strong-willed best friend, to Zachary, his newest friend who may or may not be gay. The alphabet is not just a listing of names—L is for Leftovers, P is for Popular (Not).
Joe survives school by hanging out as one of The Gang of Five (which then and always consisted of only four). It’s hard not to be envious, reading how Joe is completely accepted as he is by this close co-ed group. Although Joe only comes out midway through the book, fully encouraged and supported by an amazing Aunt Pam, he never strives to pass as straight.
Yes, there are nemeses—namely, a hateful classmate named Kevin Hennessey and his sidekick, Jimmy Lemon. And then there is Kevin’s mother who leads the cause against establishing a gay-straight alliance at Joe’s school. This is just the plot point to prompt Joe’s (and Addie’s) parents to step up. Again, I thought, If only...
Howe’s first-person narrative is zippy, often amusing and totally entertaining. At times, it’s poignant without being preachy. Here’s an excerpt wherein Joe recalls an early obsession:
My mom says that I played wedding for about a year and that
I kept asking everybody if they would marry me. Even Jeff
[Joe’s brother]. (That was the only time anyone can
remember Jeff threatening to clobber me on a regular
basis.) I had my Lainy doll marry my Ken doll. I also had
her marry some of my Barbies. And G.I. Joe. (I hated that
the soldier doll had my name. I mean, please. I didn’t play
with him much. He was another Christmas present from my
clueless grandparents. One time when they were visiting,
my grandpa asked me if G.I. Joe had been in any wars lately.
I said, “No, but he and Ken got married last week.” Every
Christmas since then, my grandparents have sent me a
Totally Joe is a quick read that would be a perfect book choice for a gay-straight alliance or, maybe one day, in a regular grade seven classroom. The Joes—and Not-So-Joes—of this world need the exposure and the understanding.