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BOOKS: Freak Show by James St James

A girlie-boy extraordinaire

How to atone for using a real-life hammer-and-Drano murder as the cynical hook for a deeply shallow yet terribly revealing book about drug/sex/party addiction in 1990’s Manhattan? You write Freak Show, a book that digs deeper, that gets inside the exhilarating journey instead of gorging on the car crash.

Disco Bloodbath author James St James has been so uppercase FABULOUS for so many years that it’s simply underwhelming to open this new book and find the F-word twice in the first sentence. Here we go again. But wait. Read a few pages and watch the K-crazed club kid grow up. Forget the hysterically abject Macaulay Culkin of Party Monster, the Bloodbath film spinoff. St James’s first novel builds a funny, sensitive queer-eye view of one kid’s fashionista progress through the cruel gauntlet of a Florida high school.

Billy Bloom, girlie-boy extraordinaire, has sashayed through most of high school in Connecticut when his mom decides she wants him far away. He’s dispatched with his “growly old goat” of a dad to a large house in Fort Lauderdale and enrolled in the exclusive and ultraconservative Dwight D Eisenhower Academy. His debut to the Club Monaco set demands the spectacular. Billy goes for an ironically butch “post-pirate” outfit.

Is there really a lip gloss called “Wild ‘n’ Wet Sheer Puppy Snot?” There ought to be. Billy considers it a must for the “swarthy” high-seas look. Add “a thrift store military jacket in Prussian blue, a crimson sash, some rags tied in my hair.” A look that says, “I’m not gay… so please don’t punch me!”

Back in liberal Connecticut Billy was “Mistress of the Robes” at his school’s gay-straight alliance. He moved in a demimonde of “robo-trannies, go-go goths… sk8r boys, pixie chicks, hood rats.” Now he’s adrift in a sea of the “crème de la Caucasian,” hemmed in by golf shirts and tennis whites, chiselled jaws and pert noses.

Entering his first class, he strikes a pose and launches into a monologue designed to win instant friends. It sputters and stalls amid stunned silence. He surveys the gap-jawed panorama of zitless Kens and Barbies and spots a single conceivable kindred spirit: “Face like a frying pan. His face is flat! FLAT! A level surface! And that’s exactly why parents shouldn’t let children play with anvils! Why, you could pound horseshoes on that face! You could fold shirts on that face…. And would you look at those teeth! I’ve only seen teeth like that on hillbillies and demons. And demons wouldn’t be caught dead in those shoes…. He’s absolutely perfect. He’ll be my first friend.” The affair lasts about 10 seconds.

This sort of thing doesn’t usually strike my funny bone. Here, I began to chuckle and couldn’t stop. It works because Billy is screwball tragic. Every social moment is a quagmire waiting for his gorgeous swan dive. He goes headlong into the muck every time. It’s a delightful cringe-fest, page after page. You think your high-school cafeteria was bad? Billy gets creative lunch ideas served free — into his underpants. “Tater Tots… banana-fish-stick mash… milk-meatloaf-lima-bean paste….”

The school’s jock heartthrob is a sensitive blond named Flip. One day he taps Billy on the shoulder and introduces himself. “I was rendered mute. I made some gulping noises and clapped like a seal, which is the international sign for ‘I’m a big gay idiot! Kill me now!'” Flip remains unflapped. He just smiles and tells Billy to ignore the mouth-breathers who stuff his CKs. “They’re boneheads. You’re okay, dude.” With the gridiron hero on his team, Billy starts to get some respect.

Flip becomes the loyal puppy snuggling up to Billy’s backhanded ironies. Their love, mutually unacknowledged, is a romp of coded affection, expressed by wonky cross-purpose conversations and drunken never-quite-consummations. At last there comes a moment when lips touch and surprised tongues begin to wrestle —all too much too fast. Crisis ensues, Flip flees and Billy cranks up the bad-girl iconoclasm as a cure for the hurt. With a girlfriend spurring him on, Billy runs for homecoming queen, proclaiming, “Gender is a choice, not a life sentence!”

We sprint to a double-barrelled climax: Billy’s queer queen campaign and Flip’s end-of-season reckoning on the football field. There is no semblance of the predictable here. St James turns his final pages into a cascade of cliffhangers, cranking up pain and redemption to a thrilling finale.

This novel will undoubtedly be a movie. I just can’t conceive of a cast or director to do justice to St James’s imagination. What an utterly insane, tender, deeply affirming book this is — for hormone-charged teens or anyone over the age of 10 who still wonders who they are or might have been. The Party Monster has abandoned his K-hole and embraced the dance of life.