Background Reading for My Novel: “A Boy’s Own Story” by Edmund White

A Boy's Own Story

First published in 1982 and considered by many to be one of the finest works with a gay coming-of-age theme, Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story is a nonlinear narrative of a young boy growing up in post-World War II middle America and the struggles he has coming to terms with his homosexuality, an all too common occurrence for those of us from that generation or earlier. This is a pretty cheerless story and one that will make most readers feel uncomfortable, despondent or both when they read it. While not an autobiography the novel reflects White’s real-life experiences: a troubled relationship with both of his parents, their divorce when he was quite young, incestuous feelings for his father, and more. As I read the novel I kept thinking of it as a memoir and now find myself pondering where the line is between fact and fiction in this work.

I first started reading this book several months ago but lost interest and set it aside with the intention of giving it another try at a later time. This time I did finish it and must confess that I am somewhat torn in my feelings regarding this book. On the one hand the author’s writing style is nothing less than brilliant. He has an incredible mastery of the English language and many of the passages are quite vivid and beautifully written. His ability to paint a picture with words is profound. Oh to be able to write so well. However I found the story itself to be somewhat dry and dull. It was difficult to read more than about 30 pages at one sitting simply because the pace of the book was so painfully slow. And while I valued the author’s ability to create wonderful images with his words I felt he did so to excess, so much so that at times I found myself thinking “Enough! Let’s dispense with this and move the story line forward.”

I guess a good way to sum up my feelings was that I appreciated the novel and the author’s ability to describe scenes and characters so well, but I can’t say I actually enjoyed reading it. I am glad to have read this but would hesitate to attempt anything else by the author for fear that I would find it tedious.

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Background Reading for My Novel: “These Things Happen” by Richard Kramer

These Things Happen

This is a book for which I definitely have mixed feelings. On the one hand I felt that both the plot and the characters were very interesting and I had early expectations that I would much enjoy reading this work. However, I found the author’s writing style to be uneven and at times confusing and irritating, so much so that halfway through, I considered abandoning it. I did ultimately finish it but set it aside for a few days before resuming reading. Fortunately the book is only 256 pages, 30+ of which were non-text. Had it been longer I probably would not have finished it.

The plot centers around two Manhattan high school friends, Wesley and Theo, and the events and people in their lives over the stretch of a few days. Theo has just been elected class president and in his acceptance speech outs himself as gay, which comes to the surprise of everyone, including Wesley. The POV changes with each chapter to include not only these two characters but Wesley’s divorced parents, Kenny, an active and highly sought-after gay rights attorney, Lola, a successful editor, and both of their respective mates, George, a former actor, now restaurateur, and Ben, an ophthalmologist. Add to this mix the POV of two minor characters, Lenny and Jerry. Wesley at the age of 15 has recently moved for one school semester from Lola and Ben’s swanky uptown condo to the cramped theatre district quarters of Kenny and George, everyone having agreed how important it is for the teenager to get to know his dad better. Unfortunately Kenny is always so busy that he and Wesley spend almost no time with one another. On a personal note as a gay man who has a grown son with whom I now have a solid relationship, I wanted to nudge Kenny to not make the same mistake I did and to find more time for his boy. It also would have been nice to have had an ex-wife who was as open-minded as Lola but that’s another story. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that it is George who is actually fulfilling the fatherly role rather than Kenny. In fact it is obvious before the story’s end that the bond between Wesley and George is the pivotal relationship. The first half of the novel is written in a humourous tone but then Theo and Wesley are attacked by gay bashers, forcing each of the six characters to re-examine their feelings and attitudes. While it is apparent that all of them on the surface have progressive sociopolitical ideals, underneath the surface there are elements of homophobia and self-loathing in some of the adults.

As I commented earlier, interesting plot and characters. The problem I had with the book was a somewhat choppy writing style. In particular, there were sections with little more than lengthy stretches of short dialogue and very little variation in the talking style of the characters, forcing me to re-read sections just to figure out who was saying what. I would have preferred less dialogue and more detailed descriptive passages. The problem was compounded by the ever-changing POV from chapter to chapter. Ordinarily I very much enjoy a novel with multiple POV’s and think if the author’s writing style had been smoother I would have here as well.

Published in 2012, this is Kramer’s first novel although he has previously won accolades for his work on television’s “thirtysomething” and “My So-Called Life.” Having never watched either of those shows I was not familiar with the author and this was my first encounter with his work. Having now learned this about his background helps me better understand his writing style since the work for me reads more like a screenplay than a novel. In the end I am glad I finished reading the book despite some of the frustration I encountered during the experience.

Background Reading for My Novel: “Don’t Let Me Go” by J. H. Trumble

Don't Let Me Go

What a superb novel this was, especially when I learned that it was the author’s first. Published in 2011 this was a real inspiration for me as I tackle the challenge of creating as good a debut work.  I stumbled upon this book on goodreads and based on the very positive reviews and overall theme, I thought it would be a good one to check out in my search for novels that had some bearing on the book I am writing. I am so glad I did.  The story centers around two teenage boys living close to modern-day Houston who meet in high school and quickly fall in love. Adam, a year older than Nate, upon graduation takes an off-Broadway writing position in Manhattan largely due to Nate’s insistence that he follow his dreams.  Even though they both loathe the separation, they try their best to stay connected. Trying to maintain a long distance relationship becomes even more problematic when the two are Skyping one evening and Nate spots Adam’s shirtless and attractive roommate leaning over Adam. Jealousy and resentment build, leading to Nate starting a blog to give himself an outlet for his frustrations. His blog in turn creates a huge controversy in the community thanks to the “I’m gay and proud”  in-your-face theme of the site. Things reach a tipping point when a younger boy Luke, who is still in the closet, is drawn to Nate and Nate starts developing feelings in return. Through effective use of flashbacks we also get much of the back story. Probably the most important of these flashbacks involves Nate being the victim of a brutally severe homophobic attack while he and Adam are both still in high school. The details of this attack are gradually revealed  rather than having all the information dumped on the reader at one time. I won’t reveal anymore of the plot in hopes that what I have written will interest you and you too will want to read the book.

The story is both heartbreaking and inspiring. I found both the plot and characters well constructed and engrossing. In addition to Nate and Adam I found the secondary characters to be quite believable as well. The novel is written from the POV of Nate but the author does an excellent job of getting the reader inside the heads of the other characters so one can get a good understanding of each of their perspectives. This is a very sweet, tender coming-of-age novel but not one that is overly sweet, throwing in enough drama and darkness to make it all seem very real. All of the characters have their flaws and since this so much is Nate’s story, his flaws are quite evident. He is impulsive and foolish at times and certainly does his share of dumb things. There are times when I wanted to kick him in the butt and other times when I wanted to tell him to stop being so insecure. But through it all he is someone who is sympathetic and who I wanted to see succeed.

I even loved the title of the book because it succinctly sums up several of the recurring themes. The author followed up this book with Where You Are which deals with the taboo subject of teacher/student intimacy and has another one due in the fall Just Between Us which is the story of Luke, one of the critical characters in Don’t Let Me Go. Based on the wonderful job the author did with her first novel I eagerly look forward to reading both of these works as well.