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.

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