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The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy

by Robert Leleux (St Martin's, 2007)

In the middle of June, I read two very entertaining novels that, in the end, I decided not to hold onto. That's a bit unusual in itself, but what's really strange is my having failed to enter the titles into my library database. Trying to remember the name of the author was therefore a great chore. In the end, I relied on Amazon's associations: People who bought the book that I had just finished reading, Robert Leleux's The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, bought other books — not the ones I was looking for, but books that eventually led me to them. Because I enjoyed both books thoroughly, I'm ashamed to have forgotten the the titles: Mark Acito's How I Paid For College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theatre and Attack of the Theater People. I don't appear to have mentioned them at The Daily Blague, nor in any letters to friends. I did, I see, mention it in chat:

I'm midway through Theatre People and loving it. Although it's hard to characterize. Not a farce, Not too over-the-top gay. Sweet, in its way. But not afraid to be dirty.

Once I had read these books, I found that I didn't have anything more interesting than that to say about them. Both novels are very well-plotted and full of incident. There are some very funny scenes and situations. But both books seemed generic in the best sense of the word. The narrator is an ingenu who, in the course of the first novel, discovers his sexual preference; he already knew about his flair for drama. Were there mobsters? I seem to recall mobsters, but perhaps I'm mixing up How I Paid For College with Joe Keenan's My Blue Heaven. Ever since Patrick Dennis's Genius, the combination of drama queens and the men who don't know they're men has proved to be an irresistible vein of comedy. One might almost call it a genre in its own right, a sort of Feydeau updated for postmodern sexuality. Like a good crime novel, Mr Acito's books deliver the expected thrills, with more than enough variation to whet the appetite. But the effect is comestible rather than literary. So, beyond the pleasantly well-fed burp, I haven't anything to say about them.

I had not heard of Mr Leleux's book when I came across it in the QPBC catalogue. I was ordering two other novels from the same page, and perhaps in a spirit of "the more the merrier" I penciled its item number on the order form. I fully expected The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy to read somewhere between Mr Acito's novels and Edmund White's. When the book arrived — now, this was rare — I was in exactly the mood to read it, or what I expected it to be, and, sure enough, the opening chapters spun hilarious variations on familiar themes. A sixteen year-old boy and his sophisticated, sybaritic mother hate having to live on Daddy's family's ranch in Petunia, Texas — right up to the moment when Daddy upstages their discontent by taking up with another woman, leaving Mother, temporarily, penniless. This is clearly Auntie Mame territory, and I was laughing out loud. Pretty soon, I was reading out loud, to Kathleen. The seventh chapter, "Crazy Glue," was both to funny and too well-crafted not to share. By this point, Mother can no longer afford her weekly visits to the beauty salon at Neiman Marcus, and in her desperation she has fallen for the promise extended by a commercial on Good Morning, Houston that doesn't inspire anything like the same confidence in her son, Robert. Wait, there's more! Mother has nowhere near recovered from some drastic cosmetic procedures, including a lip implant that would slur her speech even without the the pain pills that she chews all the way from Petunia to a strip mall on the Southwest Freeway. She probably ought not to be worrying about what's left of her hair. Robert wants to take her to Neiman's anyway, perhaps as a pro bono case.

Jethuth Chritht, Robert! Let up on me, will you? Don't be frightened by the neighborhood. I've checked everything out over the telephone. The people who work here approach a woman'th hair like an art form. They innovate. They exthperiment. The lady on the phone exthplained that they've worked very hard to avoid public attention. They fly under the radar, tho they can cater to a very thelect clientele. Do you know that they told me they do the hair of — " Here Mother leaned in and whispered the name of a famous Houston socialite who'd recently been awarded an enormous divorce settlement from her oil baron husband. "Okay? Doethn't that reathure you? You old Mother'th got everything under control. Now, thtop critithizing me!"

"If they want to avoid publicity, then why do they advertise on TV?" I asked. Mother didn't answer. she just clutched her cow udder ice pack to her mouth like a lace handkerchief and headed toward the salon. I followed her through the door, thinking how very unlikely it seemed that that socialite, whose hair always looked quite lovely in the Style section of the Houston Chronicle, had ever visited this strip mall. The entry to the salon was dim and cool, and I was blind while my eyes adjusted to the light. The first thing I saw, upon regaining my vision, was distasteful. A large woman named Shirley, who had the figure of a mashed potato, sat behind a wicker table watching McMillan and Wife on a rabbit-ear television and eating ice out of a Taco Bell cup with her bare fingers.

We're told that the lobby was "decorated with patio furniture," its walls hung with "posters, thumb-tacked into the drywall." Things go painfully and hilariously downhill from here, at least for Mother. Inevitably, the chapter's title turns out to be a clue about the kind of hairdressing practiced at the salon, and Mother emerges only slightly less humiliated than she would have been by a pie-throwing contest. But don't take that reference to McMillan and Wife too seriously. The novel is set in 1996. That makes the author, whose memoir this really, really is, all of twenty-eight years old today. Even if there were nothing original about the book, it would be impressive evidence of literary precocity. Mr Leleux knows what he's doing.

As it happens, "Crazy Glue" marks a turning point in The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy. Two chapters later, Robert, O'Doole, has met the "Older Homosexual Man" (all of twenty-five) whose name he will soon legally take as his own. At the same time, Mother almost immediately meets her next husband and disappears to California. Mr Leleux blazes his own trail, well off the well-worn path — "Adventures with Crazy Mom" — that he clearly knows backwards and forwards, and The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy begins to follow the contours not of genre but of real life. The course of true love proves to make Lake Placid look choppy, and while there's still plenty of fun, the sense of a wind-up toy about to pop dissipates entirely. This ought to spell disaster, but if Mr Leleux turns his back on plotting, he goes on to produce plenty of characters witty and waggish enough to bury Mother's absence in oblivion. Far from outlasting its original promise, the book ends, really, much too soon.

If The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy breathes freer air than genre allows, it is still somewhat too highly stylized — coiffed, perhaps — for today's literary tastes. In a "Note to the Gentle Reader," the author notes,

I have also, naturally, corrected unbecoming camera angles, softened direct, overhead lighting, altered outmoded skirt lengths, reduced unflattering, early-morning, under-eye puffiness, bloating, and splotchiness, as well as reversing the accelerated aging effects of excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays.

In fact, Mr Leleux has done exactly the opposite, exploiting his story's cartoonish, occasionally grotesque possibilities at every turn. (There is absolutely nothing flattering in "Crazy Glue." Not a single flattering word — except for that comment about the socialite's "quite lovely" hair.) The humor depends too much on well-placed wise-cracks, and not enough on character development. Truth to tell, there isn't much character development to speak of. Robert doesn't so much grow up as show his (attractive) true colors. Once he is taken into the bosom of his boyfriend's loving family — who adopt him with a dispatch that forecloses entire boulevards of dramatic conflict — he has no choice but to buckle down and pry the bucks for Sarah Lawrence out of Daddy. The sound wisdom in which the book's later pages abound would not be at all out of place in something more overtly inspirational. If Mr Leleux knows how to make every dish in the cookbook, and even to play with the sequence of courses, he has yet to work out his own recipes. Whether he has it in him to try is in the hands of the gods, but I think that he has it in him to succeed if he does. (November 2008)

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