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From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up

From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up, an anthology edited by Ted Gideonse and Rob Williams.

A few months ago, when From Boys to Men appeared, I bought a copy, because it's a print breakthrough for Joe Jervis, the author of Joe.My.God. But I was in no hurry to read it, and it languished on a shelf until just the other day, when I heard a clip of Joe talking about the book on Sirius Radio. I pulled it down and began at the beginning. I was hooked immediately. 

It's important to note that this is not a collection of coming-out dramas. The stories told here are more delicate, as each writer attempts to trace the journey from childhood ignorance to adult self-acceptance. There are common themes, of course - coping with being called "faggot" in the schoolyard, surreptitious play-dates with Barbie, and no end of unrequited affection - but they are played with amazing variation. Eric Karl Anderson, in "Barbie Girls," uses the doll to characterize his utterly asexual relationships with middle-school classmates, cultivated solely to secure him a place among the cool kids. After a spellbound moment at summer camp, the young Mr Anderson "knew that these weren't the right friends anymore" when he went back to school. Aaron Hamburger, in contrast, always knew that he was interested in other boys, but he broke his own heart anyway, with assiduously-maintained friendships with boys who rarely gave him more than the time of day.

To what extent is this material dated? Will little boys always be warned away from homosexual leanings, even after most people understand that choice is not involved? Will beautiful gay boys ever arrive at their young triumphs with the heedlessness of their heterosexual brothers? Will we ever know where the "homosexual" ends and "being different" begins? So much of the pointless pain inflicted on the contributors to From Boys to Men seems to have been motivated by a fear of alien-ness. So much of it seems peculiar to ill-educated, lower-middle class America in the second half of the Twentieth Century. (Although in Tom Dolby, whose contribution is entitled "Preppies Are My Weakness," we have one alumnus of Hotchkiss.) The life of secrecy endured by so many of the writers here must surely have been somewhat deforming, even if only privately.

Good fathers are in extremely short supply here, something that suggest to me not a causal relationship between lousy parenting and homosexuality but the possibility that a broken or unloving father will create an atmosphere full of problems for his son to write about later. The unhappiness of living with an unsympathetic stepfather suffuses Jason Tougaw's "Aplysia californica," perhaps the most conventionally literary contribution to the project. Mothers, as you might expect, appear both more to the fore and in greater variety. There is the sweet slut of Michael Gardner's "The Competitive Lives of Gay Twins," and there's the clueless loyal wife of Trebor Healey's "The Upshot." For me, the most harrowing piece is David Bahr's "No Matter What Happens," which features two moms, Sadie, the writer's biological mother, a disturbed woman incapable of nurturing a child; and June, his foster mother, who turns on him after an aborted sojourn with Sadie. Lee Houck's "Inheritance" presents an instinctively hostile grandfather, a man who can somehow see that his grandson is queer. Remarkably, nobody reports extensive beatings or other serious abuse.

From Boys to Men offers a catalogue of narrative strategies. Blogger Francis Strand writes about himself in the third person in "Five Stories about Francis," and this alone makes his piece a little bit funnier than it would have been otherwise, by accentuating the "drama" of the boy's reactions and resolutions. Viet Dinh's "A Brief History of Industrial Music" poses as a learned note about a pop genre to which the author has appended footnotes devoid of scholarly apparatus but crammed with intimate snapshots. In "Peristalsis," Mike McGinty offers a suite of droll thumbnails taken from years five through seventeen. Raymonde C Green switches among moments from his past to delay the impact of his high-pitched self-discovery. Two stories, "Guide," by Austin Bunn, and "The Boy with the Questions and the Kid with the Answers," by Horehound Stillpoint, focus more on troubled older boys than on the authors. Michael McAllister begins his fragment, "Sleeping Eros," with a moment of sexual awakening, but the moment quickly fades into the remarkable story of his parents' divorce. In this, he's in a sad but altogether normal position; it's his parents who have discovered that they are gay.

Vestal McIntyre, in "Mom-Voice," and E M Soehnlein, in "The Story I Told Myself," show how their own creative work as adolescents led them to self-discovery. In "Dick," in contrast, Alexander Chee gets creative as soon as he makes that discovery, at the age of eight. D Travers Scott, in "Growing Up in Horror," took a little longer, perhaps, but the results are not only funnier but more concrete - I wonder if he still has the film. Todd Pozycki's "The Lives and Deaths of Buffalo Butt" project an amiable figure whose homosexuality is something like the relieving resolution of childhood OCD.

I've saved Joe Jervis's "Terrence" for last, because, since I know Joe somewhat, his contribution has a VistaVision intensity that puts it in a class by itself. Perhaps the piece would be vivid even if I didn't know Joe, because the star of this story is the title character. With his dyed-brassy hair and his southern-belle gestures, he is the most exuberant queen in From Boys to Men. I call him the star because, like the sun, he illuminates and nourishes life. When the story begins, Joe is in an interesting place, actively but discreetly gay. He has not yet come out to his mother. As it turns out, Terrence has nothing to do with the eventual change in status on that front, but it is Terrence who teaches Joe first the shame of trying to keep his sex life apart from his daily life, and then the pride of uniting them with brio. Still a discreet gentleman - that's just who he is - Joe has found his own way to be proud of himself. Who knew that that pride would make him into a published writer and one of the most popular bloggers in the 'Sphere?

In a perfect world, there would be a companion volume, entitled From Boys to Men: Straight Men Write About Growing Up. Books such as the gay version subtly suggest that straight men have an easy time of growing up, but the only ones for whom that's true are assholes. Everyone else has to figure out a series of moves that will take him from latency to manhood. Unfortunately, our culture encourages men to forget each step of the way as soon as it is completed, giving rise to a bad faith that has filled the land with sour Gary Lamberts. Gary's creator, novelist Jonathan Franzen, has been critically roasted for sharing his missteps and compromises; in The Discomfort Zone, Mr Franzen violates the code of omertà that silences discussion of adolescent insecurity. Once you make it into the world of salaried heterosexuality in our world, you're expected to bluff your way onward with phony bonhomie. This may be why I've encountered so few engaging straight male blogs.

From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up, an anthology edited by Ted Gideonse and Rob Williams.(Carroll & Graf, 2006)


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Companion volume? Author! Author!

Hey, thanks for such a thoughtful review! I really enjoyed reading your opinions. Especially since you were complimentary!

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