“Can gay boys have bromances?”
That’s just one of the many questions Bill Konigsberg asks in his new teen novel. But it’s definitely not the biggest.
In the follow-up to his 2008 Lambda Literary Award-winning first novel, Out of the Pocket
, Konigsberg takes gay teen fiction to ever more challenging places. Openly Straight
came out (if you’ll pardon the pun) this month under the Arthur A Levine imprint of Scholastic books.
The premise is striking: Konigsberg’s hero, Seamus Rafael Goldberg (he goes by “Rafe”), is a talented, smart, athletic gay kid with a supportive family and wonderful friends. His mom runs the local chapter of PFLAG, Rafe is a key member of his school’s GSA, and he’s been out and proud since middle school. But in 11th grade, when Rafe moves across the country to a prestigious, queer-positive all-boys boarding school, he decides he’s tired of being “the gay kid.” Tired of labels and limits, he decides to play it straight.
I’ve been a bookseller for about 15 years and a gay man for even longer. As someone who makes his living recommending positive, progressive titles for young people, this seemed like an upsetting set-up. “You’re not the first one who’s said that,” Konigsberg tells me in a phone interview from his home in Phoenix, Arizona. Though he reminds me that “not all kids are in the same situation” – not everyone today has the luxury of being out – it’s clear that his novel speaks directly to and about the current generation of teens, more and more of whom are able to come out in middle school or earlier.
We grownups might see a character like Rafe Goldberg returning to the closet as more than just problematic: somehow it seems disrespectful, ungrateful. But for those kids who do have the luxury of supportive families and safe schools, has “gay” become just another label? Openly Straight delves deeply into the values and costs of labels for the possibly post-gay teen.
These are pretty weighty topics, but Konigsberg keeps the tone light and the story juicy. There are moments of friendly snarkiness, a few drunken shenanigans, and even some furtive sexy times in the woods. The prose is loose but smart, which is a great combination for any readership, teen or otherwise. And though his cast of characters is vivid – “openly straight” Rafe, his flaky parents, his dorky roommate Albie, Claire Olivia, Rafe’s best friend back home, and the straight-but-questioning Ben – they aren’t over-defined, allowing readers to project themselves into the characters’ situations.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is through this supporting hetero (or “hetero”) cast that we most see the effects of Rafe’s experiment back in the closet. Much of the gossipy delight of the book revolves around who does and doesn’t know his secrets, and parental visits and holidays back home start to blur the edges of the conflicting identities Rafe is trying so desperately to manage.
Rafe’s relationships with the school jocks are really what makes this book come alive. Konigsberg articulates those glass barriers that stand between the realms of acceptance and inclusion: openly gay Rafe had played high school sports and been accepted as a valued member of the team, but he has a very different experience – an experience he likes a lot – now that he’s not “the gay kid” in the locker room. And of course, this is where the bromance comes in. The love story in Openly Straight delivers everything you’d expect: drama, hyperbole, confusion and sex. But the double-twist makes it fresh: a gay kid pretends to be a straight kid who’s exploring his (secretly well established) homosexuality with his straight (but newly curious) crush. It’s complicated and it’s wonderful.
This story could have easily descended into some kind of misplaced nostalgia for the closet. Or a didactic tale of being true to oneself. It could have been a farce of secrets and revelations. Instead, Konigsberg navigates these treacherous waters earnestly and easily. Openly Straight shows teens making contentious choices and brings up plenty of touchy subjects. As it turns out, that’s exactly why I’d recommend it.
“Can gay boys have bromances?” Claire Olivia asks Rafe. I asked Bill Konigsberg the same question. His answer: “Well, I hope so.”
Arthur A Levine Books