This is the story of a boy. As a small child, he loves falling into the fantastic, fantasy, secret life shared with his father. He rides his father’s shoulders, flying through the air and singing absurd bayou songs, living free. These untamed occurrences, however, clash with the kind of life his mother wants to lead. With bleach and scripture, she attempts to change a changeling into a good Christian boy, just as she bottled the bayou passions of his father.
To appease his mother, he befriends his golden-boy neighbor, but even golden boys have secrets in the closet. He spends a summer in the bayou with his aunt and three cousins to toughen up, but not even the rough lives of tween boys can change a body. Throughout his school years, he is marked by his swishy walk and lisping talk. Despite the rejection of his peers, sometimes at the end of fists, he finds places where he fits. The people he meets teach him the ropes, roughly made as they are. Maybe he can never be the all-American kind of boy, a sparkling image besmirched by base human nature. Nevertheless, his experiences—often turbulent, sometimes clandestine, rarely pointless—allow him to grow into his own, ready to face the indiscriminate world.
Full disclosure: I am probably not smart enough to have read this book, let alone provide a worthy review, but a promise is a promise…
Pulp fiction this book is not. It’s firmly in the literary vein PLUS it’s not a romance novel, so the structure is far removed from the Bob-and-Larry-wind-up-falling-in-love-and-here’s-how-it-happened form. What it lacks in familiar tropes, it makes up for with the stunningly rich backdrop of Louisiana bayou starring a hodge podge cast of characters that mirror the kaleidoscope of individuals that might crop up in anyone’s life.
We see our main character at ages 7, 13, 16, and 18ish. Each juncture showcases him in the kinds of situations that, were I him, would make me ask myself how I ever got myself into that situation in the first place. Over each installment, our MC is shows how unapologetically him he is, from when he’s a little kid, straight through to the end of his teenage years where the story ends. The earliest phase we read about juxtaposes the swishy walk and lisping talk the 7-year old MC shows with his mother’s passionate desire to have a “normal” boy. Yet even at such a young age, there’s not denying he’s anything but what Louisianians call a “Jenny Woman.” (Note to reader: there is a scene where he performs a sexual act on an older-but-still-underage neighbor boy. It’s not graphic, it’s not even overtly described, but it clearly happens on-page…Note on the note—this is part of what solidifies the character’s self of self, I’d argue. I’m not trying to defend anyone’s actions in this fiction’s accounting, but I found the MC’s initial reaction telling: he shrugs off what just happened in favor of picking his reward, a comic book from the older boy’s collection.)
As he grows into himself, there is still a sense that he’s not quite settled in his skin; yet, despite knowing he’s some version of not-straight, it takes quite a while for the first-person narration to bluntly state that he, the MC, is in fact gay and has sex with other males. This gets reflected in the threads where he ends up hanging with questionable characters, like the football star who was secretly banging their male catholic school teacher (and invited MC to part take as well, but they all got busted by the football team barging in while Football Star and Teacher were in flagrante delicto, so to speak). Or the thread where MC is at a bar with the queens who are his support structure (loosely speaking) outside of school who in turn school him how to use sex to get what he wants (drugs). And if he wasn’t entirely on board with how the bar owner took advantage of him, he knew he was entitled to recompense.
Like I mentioned above, the writing style is deeply visceral and our MC’s narration establishes a firm connection to the nebulous qualities he himself possesses and those of the world and other characters around him. I’d say he sort of embodies the spirit of Whitman’s “I am large and I contain multitudes.” Pousson does a fantastic job using language to set the stage for a tale from the bayou. Phrases in French pepper the text, sometimes with translations and sometimes without. The MC’s monologue consistently paints a picture of a slip of a boy, maybe one beaten down my the oft repeated epithets directed at him—he’s a ‘fairy’ and a ‘Jenny woman,’ yet the final chapter gives the reader hope that maybe a handful of ignorant words won’t be the end of the story for our MC.
Overall, I rather liked the book. Again, I probably would have benefitted from having a Cliff Notes version but, nonetheless, it’s the kind of thing you can read and take away from it what you want. I, for example, was totally squicked out by neighbor-boy asking for a blowjob, but at the same time, curious to see how that event would shape the MC. In the end, this is a story about a boy who struggles to fit his outre self into a meaningful existence while still remaining…himself.
And, honestly, the last couple of pages were amazing. They take the entire body of work and put just this slight spin on it that makes you reevaluate the whole enchilada and give you…well, not a traditionally “happy” ending (there is little “traditional” about the whole book), but an glimmer of hope, clear and simple.
If you liked books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower (for social issues and taboos) or The Bell Jar (for stifling institutions) or Faulkner (for settings), I’d definitely recommend this book for you. It’s a challenging read about a “non-conforming” (ugh, hateful labels) person from a place where expectations are still very “conforming.”