Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gay Teens: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You
BY PETER CAMERON

The title is from the Roman poet Ovid, “Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.” The pain explored in this novel is that of adolescence, a time when, unfortunately, the poet’s assurance is not likely to seem very reassuring or of much consolation. Our hero James Sveck bungles terribly an attempt to let the manager of his mother’s art gallery know that he is interested in him. His life is one of boredom, alienation, awkwardness and mystification. James, with reason, may doubt if the embarrassment and pain ever come to be useful when he looks at the adults in his life. His divorced parents have not managed the issues of love and belonging any better than James has it would seem. His father is a self-absorbed prominent lawyer getting a facelift and his mother has opened a modern art gallery in New York where James idles away his summer hours as the receptionist. She has just returned alone from an unfortunate honeymoon in Las Vegas where her third husband, met with the assistance of her “life coach,” has stolen her credit cards and gambled away a good deal of her money.

But for all of their inability to understand and navigate the important issues in their own lives, his parents have definite plans for James and know what will be best for him. He has just graduated high school. Their expectation is that now he will attend Brown University in the fall and begin avidly the vaguely sterling career that awaits him. James doesn’t want to go, finds those his own age boring, and he has spent a lot of his summer locked in his New York apartment taking virtual real estate tours of older houses located in Midwest suburbs. The alienation of their son from all the values and expectations of their world, and even from those of his own age group, are incomprehensible to his parents. They have found him a psychiatrist.

James is gay, but this is a novel not so much about being gay as it is about the perennial issues that come with adolescence, the existential questions about meaning, about what is of value, about how to make connections with other people, about how one fits in, and about finding love. James comes to understand what all teenagers come to realize to their secret horror and chagrin, that our parents are pretty useless as you cross the divide. Cameron softens this hard truth with a tender yet urbane comedy of manners, something readers are likely to find a stylistic novelty in books for young adults. James is a highly intelligent young narrator, an exasperating match for the adults in his life as he challenges the truth of their arguments and the value of their advice. His exchanges with his parents are amusing, the scenes where he explains the “modern art” art in his mother’s gallery to reviewers and customers are hilarious, and his tug of war with his psychiatrist will have you cheering.

James, like his literary progenitor, Holden Caufield, has discovered much “phoniness” in the world, but this is ultimately a sweet and hopeful novel. We come to care for James and we don’t imagine a future for him of resignation to any conventional role in the sad theatre of the world. As we leave him we sense a strength in his stubborn intelligence and share a trust in his instincts. He has seen through what is meretricious and phony, but he has too a sense of what is genuine. It may not save him any pain, but we believe it might just see him through.

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