Lenny “Zip-Lip” Dubinski is an introverted, closeted, gay high school senior. His big aspiration is to leave his small coastal New England town, interestingly called Hope Harbor, and go somewhere urban where he can express himself through his costumes and personas. Not that anyone would know this about him. Lenny is sure his father was so disgusted by Lenny’s adolescent Peter Pan costume that he abandoned him and his mother. So Lenny keeps all his costumes under lock and key, just like the turmoil in his personal life. He has no friends in school, but the bouncer and bartender at the local gay bar seem to be a close support. They allow Lenny to enter and hang out, as long as he only drinks soda. Lenny relishes this Friday night outing, where he’s able to indulge in his costumes and adopted personas, to be the strong and valiant and swarthy Captain Jack Sparrow, if he wants. Until a couple bullies from his high school sneak in one night and recognize him in all his costumed glory. They snap a picture and threaten to “unmask” Lenny in humiliating fashion if he shows up for graduation in a week.
Lenny is so distraught that the next day at the senior charity beach clean up that he walks into the ocean with the intention of leaving his woes behind permanently. Lenny has second thoughts, but he’s caught in the riptide and not strong enough to swim himself free. He has no idea a fellow classmate, Kyle Larson, the third of the bully trifecta, is swimming nearby.
Kyle is adrift in more than the ocean. His mother, who got pregnant young and has since become a member of a Christian cult, despises him. His dad was never in the picture and Kyle was largely raised by his grandfather who cared for him in a gruff and no-nonsense way. He at least made sure Kyle had food to eat regularly, but he overdosed on pain meds a couple of months ago. Kyle is a big guy and a real jerk at school, picking on whomever to get food, or money for food, since he’s constantly on the brink of starvation. Kyle’s mother is verbally and physically abusive, and Kyle spends a lot of his time drunk or high to escape his unhappy home life. The senior clean up is not high on his agenda, but it’s required for graduation and he doesn’t have anything better to do. Irritated with his buddies, who are each pretty scummy, Kyle goes for an unauthorized swim break. He’s stunned to find Lenny caught in the riptide, and nearly gets overwhelmed himself swimming out farther to save him. Bringing Lenny back from the brink of drowning changes something fundamental in Kyle. He’s not entirely without redemption if he was able to rescue this kid. Right?
Lenny and Kyle are forced into orbit of one another due to the recognition of Kyle’s heroism. The school makes a big deal of the incident, and Lenny—afraid people will figure out that he was attempting suicide—is willing to go along with the Hero Kyle program. Their personal secrets are just under the surface, but it’s not long until Kyle’s “buddies” want to clue him in to what a freak they think Lenny is. And Kyle, for the first time feeling good about himself, isn’t interested in their cruelty. Not when Lenny is able to tutor him to passing a final exam in a required course for graduation. Lenny is funny, and sweet, when they are one-on-one chatting. He’s also attractive in a way Kyle never wanted to acknowledge.
This is a really sweet story about two lost souls connecting through near-tragedy. Kyle is so hungry for love that he’s willing to begin a new life path entirely to get closer to people who will give him that attention and affection. Lenny is mortified that Kyle’s friends will still ruin his graduation, and yet he’s so happy to have a real and true friend in Kyle—maybe even a boyfriend if thing work out. It’s the first positive experience he’s had with anyone his own age in forever. Their connection deepens the more time they spend, and that makes it tougher for Lenny to reveal his big secrets. If his own dad got turned away by his costuming habits, what chance does he have of keeping Kyle nearby? He does reveal his desire for college, though, and shares some sketches of his costumes, which Kyle finds amazing.
There is a coincidence and melodrama factor here that is a bit endemic to the YA romance genre. Situational facilitation of the budding relationship was heavy, and—aside from Kyle—the bullies are truly unredeemable, in that same fashion. They mastermind a humiliation that bordered on Carrie levels, but without the supernatural fallout. Kyle is such a rock, though, and I was glad to see how Lenny coped, bolstered by the support of his nightclub pals, his parents, and Kyle. If Kyle was transformed by saving Lenny, Lenny was transformed by Kyle’s love. They are both stronger and better for being connected. This story ends happily, with Kyle finding an abundance of both love and food, while Lenny comes to terms with his emotional needs and accepting himself for who he is without reservation. It’s an affirming and well-told story that definitely embodies the “It Gets Better” theme. I believe fans of intense YA romance and coming out stories will likely enjoy this one.