Once again, author Huston Piner takes us back to Chadham High School, the setting of his novel, My Life As A Myth. In this second novel, Conjoined at the Soul, we are once again stepping back in time to 1980—a time before being gay or even dating interracially was acceptable to most people. Piner touches on both these subjects when he turns his focus on a small group of friends that include Randy Clark, who has just accepted the fact that he is gay, Annie Brock, his best friend and a black female, and Jeremy Smith, a quiet and reserved boy who is the focus of bullying at the high school. This circle of friends will help each other navigate their sophomore year at high school and discover just what it means to bear up under what can sometimes seem like the bigoted and hateful microscope of a small-minded town.
Randy will think he has it made when a senior named Gene takes an interest in him. But he soon discovers that Gene is a closeted head case who is more abusive than loving and who will never value Randy as he should. Things begin to change when the new boy, Kerry Sawyer, arrives in town. Kerry is hard to read and Randy is really worried that his growing attraction for the guy will end their friendship if Kerry is indeed straight and discovers Randy is gay. As Randy fumbles through the hell that high school can be when you have a secret to hide, he and his friends will have to face down racist bigots, homophobic hate crimes, and, in Randy’s case, so much teenage angst that it’s amazing he survives. Sophomore year will change all three friends and make them stronger and more determined to find happiness, even when the cost seems so very high.
This newly revised and re-released work by Huston Piner may not have the same impact as his first novel, but there is still quite a bite to his story. Dealing with everything from interracial couples to coming out, this novel uses humor to soften what can only be described as the most tumultuous and nasty of sophomore years a student could encounter. While I wasn’t a huge fan of how the author handled the abusive encounters between Gene and Randy, I could also appreciate that Randy felt having a relationship with another guy meant settling for whatever he could get—even when it was obvious he was being used for sex and treated like a slut in return. Gene’s character took demeaning sex to a whole new level and it was not always comfortable to read. However, the author managed to counterbalance that with the lovely Kerry Sawyer who really did see Randy as someone to be cherished.
There were such fun moments in this novel and that made the more troubling aspects of this story much more palatable. I say troubling because between Randy’s own horribly bigoted father who rarely had a good thing to say to his son that wasn’t abusive or condemning and the horrific gay bashing that his friend Jeremy survives, this novel really never gave easy solutions to very real problems. Some may feel that the way in which the author brushed over these incidences tended to minimize their importance, but I think the opposite is true. I felt that the many key issues facing teens in the late 70s and early 80s were front and center in this story and Piner gave us a way to cope with them all—as they came at the kids fast and furiously. He never shied away from how overwhelmed Randy was emotionally and allowed the character to skate dangerously close to the edge of suicide and depression more than once. Yet despite coming close, Randy never acknowledged that he is feeling suicidal, but the sheer weight of his sadness over the horrible relationship with Gene made for quite sober reading. I appreciated how Piner chose to imbue his story with lighter moments in order to counteract the heavy messages he buried inside the narrative.
Conjoined at the Soul is not always realistic and yet there is certainly a healthy dose of what it was like to be a high school student in that era. Couple that with discovering you are gay and living in a town and a home where being so was loudly condemned and you have Randy Clark’s story in a nutshell. I think this novel touches on themes some still struggle with today and that makes it a worthwhile read in my book.