Donovan “Van” Liss dresses like a hobo from the 1890s, in tattered overalls and a worn top hat. He wears black lipstick to school, bleaches his hair to white blonde, but dyes his roots black. He embraces his reputation of an almost school-shooter like it’s some delicious joke, and promises the reader a story almost as dark and twisted as he is, himself, a story unlike the predictable love stories you’ve ever read before, because Van isn’t like anyone you’ve ever met.
Van has a secret, a dark secret, one that would turn a normal person’s stomach. This secret turns Van into a boy with stone skin, skin so thick no one can touch him. And if they can’t touch him, they can’t hurt him. Those who aren’t turned off by his bizarre appearance are cut dead by his sarcastic, sneering, contemptuous tongue … all save George C who watches him, who smiles at him, and offers something Van has never had before: a friend.
Two young men with dark pasts, two young men who feel as though they are unworthy of human decency or loving affection. Both Van and George C believe they are broken, ruined things that might just deserve the horrible things that have been done to them. But what happens when two monsters befriend one another? When Van finds out that George needs his friendship almost as desperately as he needs George’s? Maybe there’s something human under the scarecrow’s stone skin.
This book is not just written in the first person POV, it’s a book in which the characters — both Van and George — address the reader, breaking the fourth wall with all the smug arrogance of much smarter people deigning to address the common folk, and it gets old quickly. There are multiple places in this book where I rolled my eyes at what felt like the oh-so-edgy, oh-so-smartness of it all and I honestly thought about stopping and calling this a DNF because I didn’t feel connected enough to the characters or interested enough in their story to want to continue. To be fair, this book honestly reads like a teenager wrote it — which is a credit to the author, being able to get so into the head of angst-ridden, overwrought, oversensitive narcissistic bundle of nerves and paranoia that teenagers can turn in to. It just made for unpleasant reading for me.
When Van was 10 years old, his mother’s boyfriend came into his room. There was petting, cajoling, soft murmurs, and whispered threats … but no sex. Van’s tormentor wanted him to say “yes,” wanted Van to agree to what was happening to him. Now, at 18, Van has taken to protecting himself by wearing ridiculous armor and a venomous attitude so that no one ever will want to get close to him. He can’t even sleep in his bed, anymore, because of the nightmares and the memories. Instead, he’s turned the upstairs into a private apartment, complete with its own kitchen and a heavy lock on the door.
George C is a homeless young man who left his family before they kicked him out for being gay. While living on the streets, he met a man named Billy who agreed to take care of him, for a price. He soon became George’s pimp, if only for five days until George managed to escape. Now Billy’s found him and wants him back. George is surprised when Van agrees to let him stay at his place for the night — and then the week, and then longer — but isn’t foolish enough to turn down a warm bed and the chance at food. Besides, he has a crush on the sophisticated, innocent, fragile, and beautiful Van.
Their friendship is almost instant, as soon as George and Van take the time to talk. They share many interests in common, and George is quite taken with Van — first his appearance, and then his wounded soul. Van is so touch starved and so lonely that George, the first person to treat him as a person, is practically an angel, and they soon begin a careful dance of touching, kissing, and want that is interrupted only by Billy.
To be honest, I had a lot of issues with this book, not least of which were Van’s early chapters where he comes across as too cool for school, without any wit or sincerity to back it up. It was very try hard — but, he is a teenager. However, his story with the almost but not quite molestation plot, and the way it was presented, felt to me more like sexual assault victim porn than any real examination of a character. I felt uncomfortable with what felt to me like the fetishization of a young, traumatized boy who found salvation and healing with a combination of true love and great sex from his boyfriend. George spent a great deal of time thinking that he was corrupted and unclean for what he’d done while on the streets, but he really, really wanted into Van’s pants. There was no thought or consideration about what sex meant, or the power dynamics — how he went from being reliant on Billy, and owing him sex, to being reliant on Van, and wanting to give him sex. He got over the whole Billy thing pretty quickly once he got Van into bed.
I was uncomfortable with these characters and their situations, and uncomfortable with the way the story left me feeling. Add to that the ease with which every happy ending came about just really didn’t work for me. To me, it seemed like an innocent virgin victim, tormented and tortured with the threat of sexual assault as a child, saved by someone who had had more sex, but not too much sex — or as if George was a virgin in his heart, if not his body. I don’t know if I can quite get it across, but this felt juvenile, convenient, and that air of fetish and titillation just made me uncomfortable.
The mother was a vile monster, but she and Van made up in the end. Van started with no friends, but ended up with so many who were supportive and caring. Van made a great deal about how hard it was to open up to George, but the kids at school? No problem. They welcomed him with open arms, even with how hard he tried to be mean to them. There was a slightly preachy air, as if it was a novel idea that everyone has a story, that maybe the odd ball, the loner, the dangerous looking kid just needs a friend. Everything good came so easily and with no effort on Van’s side that it felt contrived and fake, especially with how hard he tried to convince us at the beginning that life was awful for him, no one liked him, people bullied him, teachers were afraid of him … but really, all it took was one person to be nice and the world turned perfect. I appreciate unreliable narrators, but it felt as if there was more author than character, at times. The framing device also didn’t work for me; I’m not the biggest fan of first person, but the fourth wall breaking really annoyed me. It did get better as the book went on, but those first two chapters were a slog, for me. Personally, I’d avoid this book. I was left uncomfortable after reading it, and considering how irritated and angry and insulted parts of the story made me, I really wish I had DNFd it.