Wednesday, February 01, 2012

What We're Reading: Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy

Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, by Bil Wright, is the winner of the American Library Association’s 2012 Stonewall Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. The Stonewall Book Awards are given annually to English-language works of exceptional merit for children or teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience.

Carlos (or Carrlos as he prefers) Duarte is a slightly overweight Hispanic teenage high school student from a poor family in New York City. He’s always been “different.” He tells us that he enrolled in the Fresh Air Camp program of his city school when he was 10 years old and was hosted by a family that lived in the Connecticut countryside. “The mother had on this smoky silver eye shadow that was probably the most exciting thing in the whole room. I got nuts about it and asked her right there at the dinner table if I could try some on.” The next morning he was sent back to his family in New York. Carlos has an afterschool job at the Eastside Day Care Center, but what he dreams of is a chance to show the world his talent as a makeup artist, a craft he has been practicing (mostly on himself) since he was a child. He gets his big opportunity at Macy’s, but his big break comes at the same time that he must learn to navigate jealousies on the job, deal with a confusing crush on a classmate, and protect his sister from a physically abusive boyfriend by being the “man” of the family.

This is an intelligently plotted novel in which the various subplots come together in a single moment of crisis that fuses and synergizes the novel’s major themes. It is a story about growing up, learning about adult responsibilities, and finding out how to get along in the larger world. Its virtue, however, is that while Carlos learns to balance his self concerns with those of friendship and family, he remains true to his own personality and voice. Carlos is the fabulous star of his own world, a great believer in his own remarkable talent and prospects, an optimist by will, and a character with little self doubt. If the room lights up when he walks in, well, that’s the way it should be. His personality, like makeup and couture, is a thing both expressive of self and a constructed presentation of self, one that has his gay difference at its foundation. He is a sort of gay “type” we have encountered, but Wright’s important achievement here is that we understand through Carlos that a personality type we are too eager to dismiss as glittering and meretricious, overcompensating or defensive, is something more. Carlos has an integrated self that is for him a completely plausible, genuine and comfortable way of his being in the world, and we see that that self, like every other, must find its difficult accommodations and learn how to build relationships with others. We meet here an unforgettable character, one that makes the world a more fascinating spectacle, and you won’t pass the Macy’s counter again without looking for him. And maybe discussing the foundation that’s right for you.

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