Sunday, December 15, 2013

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

I’ve seen Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight at bookstores over the past few months (it was released in June 2013), but didn’t have an opportunity to pick it up until this last weekend. Openly Straight is about protagonist Rafe’s decision to move from Boulder, Colorado to Natick, Massachusetts to attend an all-boys school. He goes with the goal of reinvention: while he is out and openly gay in Colorado, he plans to keep his sexual orientation a secret in Natick, where he can be “just Rafe. Not crazy Gavin and Opal’s colorful son. Not the ‘different’ guy on the soccer team. Not the openly gay kid who had it all figured out.”

I read an article recently by Bill Konigsberg for ESPN, where he talked about his own experience of being a gay man who worked as a sports writer. He wrote,

My way of dealing with this has been a personal "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, for the most part. Since I am nonstereotypical, people seem not to know, and people don't ask about my private life. That works for me, since I'd prefer not to talk about it at work. Unfortunately, people also then assume that I am heterosexual. So what does an honest person do? I'm an honest man, I do not lie about it, yet ironically by not saying anything I sometimes feel dishonest. Basically, my choice is either to correct people, or simply say nothing. I've done the latter. Until now.”

This same intent is the subject of Openly Straight. Rafe goes to his new school without saying much about his orientation. He goes in with the intention of not lying, exactly, but when he is asked a direct question about having a girlfriend, he finds himself concealing who he is. In this way, Rafe finds that he has the ability to reinvent himself. He befriends the popular jocks and gets on the soccer team. He is pleasantly surprised, remarking, “Here I was, two hours into my Natick adventure, and I was already in that entirely new skin I had fantasized about. Jock Rafe.”

When Rafe begins to form meaningful relationships with new friends, he sees the inherent difficulty with neglecting to share something as integral as his identity. Especially as he gets close to another teenager named Ben, he finds that what he has been withholding is a major part of who he is, and although he is not directly lying about his identity, he feels like he is being incredibly dishonest. The book follows his fall semester in Natick, as he reinvents himself and tries to evaluate what has been lost in the process.

The supporting cast in Openly Straight is just as compelling and dynamic as Rafe. A highlight of the book is Rafe’s parents, Opal and Gavin, who are so supportive of Rafe’s coming out that his mother becomes the president of the Boulder chapter of PFLAG. They throw him a party at Hamburger Mary’s where “there were Grandma Chloe and the rest of my extended family, and Claire Olivia, and her parents, and they were all wearing tack cone-shaped birthday hats. On the hats it said: Yay! Rafe is Gay!” Rafe describes the experience as appalling and says to his mom, “You’re trying to kill me.” When Rafe returns home for Thanksgiving, his parents have set up a “mountain luau surprise party” complete with a tofu pig: “I don’t know how they’d made a whole pig out of tofu, but it looked frightening real: the burnt pink faux animal appeared to be swallowing and shitting a metal pole at the same time.” Rafe’s best friend Clara Olivia and his English teacher Mr. Scarborough are equally inventive characters, and the book benefits from a reader’s interest in not just the protagonist, but almost everyone in the story.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Jack Gantos has been one of my favorite authors, and I have been reading his books fairly consistently since elementary school. Joey Pigza Swallows the Key was a read-aloud book in my elementary or middle school Language Arts class, which led me to reading the rest of the series. I read Hole in My Life and The LoveCurse of the Rumbaughs around the same time, two incredibly different novels both in terms of style and content. However, I completely missed the Norvelt books (even though I looked at them in Chapters all the time, but didn’t actually get around to buying them), the first of which was published in 2011 and won the Newberry Medal in 2012.

Dead End in Norvelt mixes the autobiographical with the fictional, as main character Jack Gantos starts off the summer on the wrong foot. He says, “School was finally out and I was standing on a picnic table in our backyard getting ready for a great summer vacation when my mother walked up to me and ruined it.” Jack accidentally fires his father’s Japanese WWII rifle, mows down his mom’s recently planted rows of corn, and is grounded for the summer. The only reprieve he’s given is to go over to his neighbor Miss Volker’s house to help her write up obituaries for the town of Norvelt’s original residents who are now in their late seventies and eighties. Miss Volker’s arthritis prevents her from transcribing and then typing up the obituaries on her ancient typewriter, and she has to routinely warm up her hands in hot wax to get them working for about fifteen minutes at a time.

Jack becomes a staple at her house, as the original Norvelt residents begin passing away at a record rate. He learns how to drive her car to visit the houses of the dead (so Miss Volker can get there before the funeral director), even though he doesn’t really know how:

“I’ve only driven a tractor,” I said nervously. “I don’t know if I can really drive a car.”
“It’s the same,” she said. “Just go slow and it won’t matter if you hit anything.”
“But what if I slowly drive off a cliff?” I asked.
“You’ll have more time to pray before you hit the bottom,” she said impatiently. “Now try to be a man and let’s get going.”

Set in 1962, Gantos’s book is a work of historical fiction, but the voice always feels contemporary and relatable. The town of Norvelt where Jack grows up was a New Deal town created by Eleanor Roosevelt (the town is named by combining parts of her first and last name) in order to help poor and impoverished Americans create a self-sustaining community. This, and other parcels of American history, are constantly inserted into the story. Miss Volker peppers her obituaries with narratives of American History that have been misrepresented or forgotten, and Jack reads the Landmark History series throughout the summer.

I have a copy of From Norvelt to Nowhere to read next for the continuation of Jack’s story, an excellent combination of history, mystery, autobiography, and fiction.