When his grandmother needs help recovering after a major operation, Oakley accepts her invitation to move in with her on her Montana ranch. Her offer comes with one condition: he begin classes at the local college. Lacking any other real direction or goals in life, Oakley accepts. But he also feels moving cross-country from Georgia would be a huge step, so he makes sure grandma’s invite extends to Pate, Oakley’s first love and forever friend. Much like Oakley, Pate’s also in his mid-twenties without any meaningful commitments. Together, the two friends pick up and move to Montana where the small rural town promises a lot of change, and a lot of questions about two young men who cope with change through codependence.
Pate feared the worst about moving to Montana. It was hard enough coming out as a trans man several years ago. Still experiencing intense bouts of dysphoria, Pate is unhappy with the femininity he perceives in his features. When a gorgeous coed named Maybelle shows interest in him, Pate is relieved he’s “passed” in her eyes and eager to get to know her. The only caveat is her possessive ex-boyfriend. And because they’re in smalltown USA, Maybelle and her ex are still good friends. Still, Pate doesn’t let any of that stop him from falling in love. But being in love does not mean the living is easy. Maybelle is eager to move to the physical stage of their relationship, but as emotionally ready as Pate may be, he’s not physically ready and still has to overcome the hurdle of coming out as transgender to his girlfriend.
Meanwhile, Oakley discovers a strong connection to a fellow student who moonlights as a drag queen. No one is more surprised than Oakley; he fell out of romantic love with Pate when he transitioned and assumed it meant he was strictly attracted to girls. Now, he cannot get Jody and his alter-ego, Sadie, out of his head. But as much as he’s drawn to Jody, Oakley simply cannot bring himself to think about (let alone act on) physical aspects of a relationship. To his credit, Jody is endlessly patient as Oakley tries to understand his attraction. In private, Oakley feels himself slowly opening up. But for every step forward, there seems to be a step back…and all of them are related to the fact that Jody has a penis. When Oakley has one outburst too many, Jody is ready to walk away.
Grayality is the debut book by author Carey PW. It’s set primarily in rural Montana starring a couple of misfit “city” boys from Georgia. There are a lot of themes at play here. Homophobia is a huge theme; the general population in this town are assumed to be homophobes and several of the characters are shown to be bigoted. Transphobia doesn’t come out until much later, but that’s because Pate keeps that fact to himself for as long as humanly possible. (Content warning: not only is there a bashing, but he gets outed in a sexual encounter gone wrong.) There’s also a lot of country bumpkin stereotyping, which I thought was strongly conveyed through a lot of negative language about a main supporting character named Stormy.
Another theme, less pronounced but still noticeable, is the age difference. Oakley and Pate are mid-twenties. They have very different lived experiences compared to the people they meet in Montana. Oakley plays heavy metal guitar, he and Pate both use tattoos as a way to visually signal their toughness, and Pate has transitioned. Pate attempted suicide in the past. Compared to the still-in-college crowd, these two have done and seen a lot. Then there are the Montana people like Maybelle and her circle of friends, all of whom act as sort of an echo chamber for their ignorance and immaturity.
Overall, I didn’t find this book very engaging. The ideas are clear and simply presented, but not well explored or fleshed out. The whole conceit for getting Oakley and Pate to Montana in the first place was a sick grandma, but she drops out of the story pretty damn quick. As much time and attention as Pate and Maybelle’s relationship gets, it was baffling to me that Pate never wondered why he fought so hard to stay with Maybelle when they seemed so wrong for each other. Ultimately, the Pate/Maybelle relationship was mostly about Pate having a vagina and his hoping Maybelle would love him enough to accept that. And Oakley’s wooing of Jody left me with all kinds of confused feelings. Jody was insisting he wouldn’t be an experiment in same-sex romance for Oakley, but Oakley had never been in a same-sex relationship nor felt attraction to any man before…and consistently described himself as straight, even when talking about his relationship with Jody.
There were some issues with the language mechanics. The author sometimes struggles to organize events clearly. For example, Pate has a wrenching chapter where he describes his suicide ideation. But it wasn’t clear if this was something new that was happening to him in Montana because of all the stress about being transgender in an environment that feels pretty anti-LGBTQ, or if this was backstory from before he moved to Montana. Also, going back to stereotyping…I found it off-putting how often this type of language appeared in the book: virginity is a “gift,” the mother of the book’s villain is put down for some apparent promiscuity and relying on disability benefits, women are inherently “soft” and “flabby,” and Stormy’s appearance led to implicit judgment about his mental acuity (he’s too dirty to work in an office, his fat fingers mean he couldn’t possibly do any delicate work).
The one bright spot amid the disappointing language usage was how Pate gets described physically. When Pate is the narrator, the author does a good job using his words to show how deep the dysphoria goes. However, when Oakley is narrating, Pate’s just a dude and that’s that. I realized it was Pate assigning himself all the “female” attributes and being hyper critical of them; no one else saw him as so female as to arouse suspicion.
If you’re interested in own-voices books, then I think you’ll find this a good read. For all the trouble I had getting into the plot and character relationships, I thought some elements of Pate’s past were meaningfully described. I just wish more of the story reflected the same level of attention to detail.