(Alfred A Knopf, 2013)
As a gay man nearing fifty, I am amazed by how much has changed since I spent my teen years in the darkest regions of The Closet during the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Gay icons were rare. (Elton John was a bisexual who married a woman.) No one ever talked of things getting better…just going to hell. And the closest thing to porn was the high cheekboned pretty models gracing the pages of my GQ magazines (this was before the editors switched to celebrity covers). “Gay marriage” was never contemplated, but then again, neither was AIDS.
What do today’s gay teens know about the way things were? Do they appreciate the freedoms they have…while pushing for more? In Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan strives to enlighten a new generation about the past, particularly what things were like during the peak of the AIDS crisis. The story is told by fallen angels as they watch eight gay teens live out one weekend that is punctuated by so many foreign components: a gay prom, the internet, texting and a one very long, very public episode of, yes, two boys kissing.
What the angels observe brings awe:
We were once like you, only our world wasn’t like yours….
We resent you. You astonish us.
And, not to overstate things, Levithan’s novel, particularly the first quarter of it, astonishes me. There is a back and forth between the angels and the storylines of the eight gay teens: Neil and Peter are an established teen couple, dating for about a year, Harry and Craig are a former couple making the transition to friends, Peter and Avery are a potential couple having met at the prom, Tariq is a gay teen recently the victim of a hate crime by strangers and Cooper is unwillingly outed to his parents, leading to his hasty decision to leave home.
Despite all that has changed, much is the same. The angels have experienced all the stages of relationships, they have been bashed or have feared the imminent possibility and they have gone through awkward, often vitriolic reactions to coming out. The angels’ words express nostalgia and longing. Here are some samples from random page flips:
Page 3: He has no idea how beautiful he is as he walks up that path and rings that doorbell. He has no idea how beautiful the ordinary becomes once it disappears.
Page 22: Waking is hard, and waking is glorious. We watch as you stir, then as you stumble out of your beds. We know that gratitude is the last thing on your mind. But you should be grateful. You’ve made it to another day.
Page 84: Some of our parents were always on our side. Some of our parents chose to banish us rather than see us for who we were. And some of our parents, when they found out we were sick, stopped being dragons and became dragonslayers instead. Sometimes that’s what it takes—the final battle. But it should take much, much less than that.
While this is a young adult novel, it will have high appeal to any of us who recall a time when AIDS went unchecked in North America. I am not certain how young readers will respond to the angels who are never defined as individual characters and are never even named. Youth may put aside the book after ten pages or skip to the sections with the current teens. Without a clear frame of reference, they may not get a real sense of the times that preceded them. And that would be a real shame.
This is a slim book, a story told in 196 pages, but I found myself stopping frequently to savor the words of the angels. For me, the real challenge seems to be the storyline referenced in the title, the quest of Harry and Craig to sustain a single kiss beyond thirty-two hours to break a world record while standing outside their high school over the course of a weekend. It is hard to keep this interesting as both a stunt and a story. This couple is stuck in one place for one purpose. Still, one cannot help but root for them and admire their bravado. Who among us dared to steal a kiss with a boy in front of our high school, for even a fleeting moment? Thirty-two hours in front of cameras and witnessed on internet feeds? Unfathomable. And astonishing.
There is plenty to admire in Levithan’s writing. I know that this is a book I will return to on rainy days, breezing through it or lingering on phrases that will seem all the more potent based on my most recent moods, experiences and my own nostalgic memories of the times when I was growing up gay.
Two Boys Kissing is absolutely worth a read. After you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.