09 June, 2005

munkey's-eye view: "BOY MEETS BOY" ~ DAVID LEVITHAN


"There isn’t really a gay scene or a straight scene in our town. They got all mixed up a while back, which I think is for the best."

David Levithan's Boy Meets Boy is not your average young-adult novel. It's also not your average gay-issues novel. It's a light, likeable teen romance set in a dream-world, which just maybe is a hopeful vision of a not too distant future. This is a world in which society has evolved a few bold steps along the path towards a sexuality-utopia - where sexual preference and gender identity have ceased to even be labels of identification, let alone ammunition for judgement or vilification.

Paul is gay. He's been gay since kindergarten, since before he had any notion of sexuality or difference. Paul inhabits a fictional middle-American town where gay and lesbian teens walk alongside geeks and jocks: just additional accepted sets within the tapestry of highschool culture. At this school, the jock quarterback is also the homecoming-queen: a six-foot drag queen in eight inch stilettos, named Infinite Darlene. At this school, sexuality just isn't an issue.

This environment lands the book more in the territory of optimism than realism, raising issues concerning the responsibilities of gay teen fiction. The ambition of such books is surely to not only give gay teen readers a point of identification and recognition, but also to hopefully attract heterosexual readers, with a view to education and acceptance. Traditionally, such books have often focussed on hardship stories about the difficulties of "coming out" and being accepted. Explorations of these narratives are all well and good; these are issues confronting countless gay teens every day. However there is also scope for other stories within the framework. And more positive and enjoyable tales such as this one will surely attract a wider readership - gay and straight - which can only be a positive thing.

That said, Boy Meets Boy is by no means angst-free - Paul and his friends are teenagers, after all. The novel accurately and warmly explores territory we have all encountered: the awkward, confusing, exciting, anxious steps we take towards true love. And despite the novel's simple expression, light touch and irreverent wit, the story is unexpectedly engrossing and even moving. It is impossible not to be charmed by protagonist Paul, or empathise with his gooeyness toward the object of his affections, quirky dreamboat Noah. Like any good romance creator, Levithan keeps us hanging on every exchange, fretting with every uncertainty and melting with every kiss.

The book doesn't make the mistake of trying to shock or impress with 'gritty' graphic explicitness. The author creates teenage characters without ever having them swear, smoke, drink or take drugs, yet they never seem like sanitised cardboard cut-outs. As at all high-schools, those activities inevitably take place, but they are not part of this story, so we don't hear about them and we don't miss them. Meanwhile, the word sex is barely, if ever, mentioned. In this pleasant universe, tender touches of the hand, disarming smiles and warm kisses are sufficient to get the blood racing, and express the depth of feeling between the two boys. This is particularly pleasing to see as - without having to make a pointed issue of it - the novel makes it clear that homosexual realtionships are a matter of love, not just sex (as so many simplistic homophobic viewpoints would have us believe).

Importantly, despite its sunny optimistic world-view, the book does not completely ignore issues of homophobia and acceptance. These are touched upon via a sub-plot involving Paul's friend Tony - a gay teen from a neighboring town, struggling to be himself in a strict Christian household. Again, Levithan's strength is in his subtlety. Tony's is a gentle rebellion; when he finally decides to make his stand, it is determined but respectful. He defies his family, but does not deny them. The result is much more affecting, both on Tony's conservative parents and on the reader, than any explosive conflict could have been.

In short, Boy Meets Boy is a delightful read. The characters, story and humour win the reader's heart effortlessly, while the incredibly positive atmosphere of Levithan's created universe is defiantly fantastical, but never absurd. The charcaters and their emotions are so real, rich and warm that it is possible to believe - indeed hope - that first loves really can navigate the inevitable obstacles and last forever... and that such an accepting world as this could - and someday will - exist.

4 (out of 5)




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