Friday, February 24, 2017

What We're Reading: New Gay Fiction

Desert Boys, by Chris McCormick

Desert Boys is the winner of this year’s Stonewall Book Award for literature. The Stonewall Book Awards are administered by the GLBT Round Table of the American Library Association, and recognize important contributions to GLBT literature each year. Burbank Public Library adds the winners to the collection each year in the fiction, nonfiction, and young adult/children’s categories.

This year’s award winner has a local connection, as this is a book based upon Chris McCormick’s experience of growing up in the nearby Antelope Valley. The structure of Desert Boys is interesting: In format, this work of fiction falls somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories. Some of the chapters have been previously published as short stories, and leaving them stand in this compilation in their integrity as separate pieces seems to have been a deliberate choice. You are reminded of this when one story gives you again a detail that you have already learned from a previous story. This gives you the sense that each of these are separate forays into the past, yet the juxtaposition of stories here results in a whole that is something more than the sum of its parts.

This book might be more properly described as a fictionalized memoir. The component nature of the work, the sequence of contained recollections, seems appropriate to that genre. This is the way we remember our pasts, not as a line with a narrative progression but as a series of patchworks of the events and experiences that have emotive meaning for us, the things we lived through that we revisit and reconstruct as stories in order to make sense of those experiences.

Several of the stories employ an innovative conceit; a favorite is “How to Revise a Play,” in which the actual revision of a play is part of a larger act of revision, occurring at the very moment, that frames the entire story. The prose in this book is simple, but the observation is sharp, and the narrative is subtle and resonant. Characters are deftly drawn, and the descriptions of the landscapes are polished, spare and beautiful. The author leaves us with a vivid sense of place that feels familiar to those of us raised in Southern California.

The different stories transcend their apparent quotidian nature and take on allegorical dimension, for at the heart of this book is the age-old question we all eventually face in our youth about the places where we grew up: “Do I stay or do I go?” The epigraph to this book is from Jackson Browne's song "The Fairest of the Seasons," Do I stay or do I go? And do I have to do just one? It's perfect. The desire to do both provides the impossible and poignant tension that binds this book together.

It is a question that gets posed for LGBT youth in a way that can be different from the rest of their peers. In Desert Boys, it is prompted by the story of the narrator's relationship with one of his childhood friends. When you are young, whether LGBT or heterosexual, you are a member of a pack of the same gender, boys or girls. It is so often the experience of LGBT youth that their first love is one of those friends, a reshuffling and a confusion that comes with growing up that almost invariably leaves you not holding the hand for which you had hoped. The object of your youthful affection is not gay. You have to move on--from that person, from that group of your youth, and often from the place you call home--in order to make a life for yourself.  It is a transition that can be geographical or metaphorical, but it always seems that it is a requisite journey. That question--do I stay or do I go?--is the one that suffuses all of these stories; it is the one always at the center of LGBT lives; and it is a theme that makes this collection powerful and moving reading for all generations of LGBT readers.

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