Friday, June 7, 2013

Emotionally Brave, But Underwhelming

A Question of Manhood

by Robin Reardon

Published by Kensington

2 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

This is a tough one, but I'm going to go with 2 1/2 stars. It's tough because I admire any young adult author who is willing to tackle the issue of homosexuality in a way that teaches the need for acceptance and understanding, but doesn't do so in a way that fails to acknowledge the powerful social stigmas and gender stereotypes that still hold sway over pre-teens and teens grappling with what it means to be gay. However, in terms of plot and timeliness, the novel just didn't deliver for me.

The novel is set in 1972 and Paul Landon's brother, Chris, is serving in Vietnam. The novel opens as Chris, the family's golden child who voluntarily enlisted to serve, is home on leave before the Thanksgiving holiday. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that much of my disappointment stems from the fact that I thought this novel was going to have a lot more to do with the Vietnam War and with the experience of a gay soldier. If it hadn't been for the Vietnam reference, I would have never picked up the book.) Chris is there long enough to basically set up the time period: he tells some war stories, he throws around some Vietnam military jargon, and brings his brother a pair of Ho Chi Minh sandals. These obligatory Vietnam narrative motifs are basically all we get in the way of setting; if it hadn't been for this early scene, the rest of the book could have just as well taken place in the present day. The night before he leaves, Chris finds out that his boyfriend, Mason, was killed in Vietnam. Paul hears Chris crying in the room next door and when he goes to check on his brother, Chris reveals that he's gay, makes him promise not to tell mom and dad, and tells him that he's going back to Vietnam to die because he has nothing to live for. A few pages later, the family learns that Chris died a hero's death shortly after returning to Vietnam. Talk about a wham, bam, thank you m'am set up. It's not subtle and a bit too contrived for my tastes.

This moves us into the part of the novel with which I was impressed. The aftermath of Chris's death is handled well and with attention to emotional truth. Paul's mother walks around in a catatonic state, his father responds with stoic bravado and advises Paul to be a man and be strong for his mother, and Paul doesn't know what the hell that means. As if the transition between child and adult isn't hard enough, Paul's coming of age is compounded by the burden of carrying his brother's secret, being denied his own guilt and right to grieve by his father, and wanting to break away from Chris's shadow as it's impossible to live up to a brother who was idolized in life and is now revered in death. Paul also grapples with his own questions about homosexuality: can it be cured? does one "choose" to be gay? is it a sin? if not, why is it illegal? what exactly does being gay with another man mean? It's easy for adults to brush these aside as stupid questions, but they only remain stupid and a breeding ground for prejudice if they aren't answered, and I'm guessing in the 1970's there weren't many open and honest answers that a suburban teenager could expect. In typical teenage fashion, Paul internally deals with all of this and makes some poor choices along the way and, in typical parent-of-a-teenager fashion, his father always misinterprets Paul's intent and motivation.

As punishment for his sins (little Paul visited a prostitute and got caught. Stupid Paul. First rule of visiting a prostitute when you're a teenager: don't get caught because you sure as shit don't want your mom to know about that), Paul loses all privileges and is forced to work in his dad's pet shop with J.J., a college student working there for the summer and--guess what?--J.J. is gay. Now Paul has the opportunity to work through the anger and the disgust he feels toward his brother, as well as his grief, since J.J. can be a stand-in substitute for Chris and guide Paul through the labyrinthine questions, prejudices, and stereotypes he has built up in his mind. And it's the pet shop section where the novel lost it for me again. You see, J.J. is the 1970's answer to the Dog Whisperer. He trains dogs who have been abused or neglected by their owners. And apparently every dog in the tri-state area has an issue because this part of the novel lapses into J.J. working his canine magic on dog, after dog, after dog, after dog. Believe it or not, this gets old after a while. By the time he made his 57th speech on dogs being pack animals, establishing his presence as an Alpha male in the dog's eyes, and hitching some sort of little chain around the dog's head, I was ready to hang myself with a leash. And I get what Reardon was trying to do here; J.J.'s amazing calm and ability with dogs comes from learning how to deal with prejudice and bullies. I just think we could have gotten that message after 3 dog training sessions and shortened this sucker up by about 50 pages.

So, here's my beef with the novel: this is clearly a didactic novel for teens, so why is this set during the 1970's against the backdrop of Vietnam? This is Vietnam-Lite and I know Reardon didn't necessarily mean this to be a Vietnam novel, but it seems to date and undermine the novel's message. It's a bit like reading Uncle Tom's Cabin; it's relevant for a particular time and place, but the message that slavery is wrong isn't one I particularly need to hear as I knew that to be a truth before reading the novel. Living in the rural South, I know there are still some vehemently held prejudices out there. However, I don't know that reading a novel about a brother grappling with his brother's sexuality in the 1970's is particularly relevant to a contemporary teenager. I think this could have been more powerful and timelier if Paul had lost a brother to the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, allowing for more of a contemporary connection with the character. However, I respect and admire Reardon's message and handling of the subject matter in a way that acknowledges the complexity of the issues involved.

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