In the days before queer, most high schools were a battle zone for sexual suspects of any stripe. We were launched into teendom on dangerous seas, long before gay-straight alliances and queer couples at the grad dance. I recall only two out gay guys from my high school years — mostly because neither had any hope of hiding it. They were the vanguard. Strangely, the big-haired and bangled drama queens got the least of the phobic backlash. It was the girlfriendless geeks who were really razzed. I guess they still are, judging from this deliciously sexy nerd romp of a debut novel from Drew Ferguson.
Charlie, gentle jock (a goalie) and pimply wanker, is plagued by uncoolness and self-doubt, but has a striking gift for comic-erotic expression. The rampant masturbatory hijinks in this book are unencumbered by authorial discretion. Charlie is also utterly out — officially okay in his post-millennium high school, but still a social minefield.
Best friend Bink, a pal from early childhood, is straight but fully hip to sexual diversity, his parents serving lessons of touchy-feely inclusiveness with every meal. When Charlie goes to live with them for awhile to escape parental discord at home, Bink’s chatty mom helps buck up his spirits by listing famous homos: “Look at Marcel Proust… actually no, he was a completely neurotic mama’s boy… such a germaphobe he soaked his mail in formaldehyde and died in a cork-lined room… but his writing always reminds me of madeleines. Oreo anyone?” Every dusty gay icon on her list (Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing, Liberace and so on) seems to Charlie either depressing or laughable.
Bink is a true bud, but it’s sporty Rob who really gets Charlie’s radar blipping. At a beer-sodden truth-or-dare party, Charlie is dared to kiss “straight” Rob, but when he staggers up from the couch to do the deed he trips and lands squarely on top of the target hunk, lips pressed to lips. Afterward he doubts the memory — did Rob actually thrust his tongue into Charlie’s mouth for a split second? Within a few days, the doubts are ancient history. Rob respectfully asks if Charlie will be his boyfriend. Even Rob’s dad casually endorses the deal. Soon they’re having boy-scout sex (rub rub, squirt squirt) at every opportunity, be it in Rob’s bedroom (scattered with crusty jock sox) or a private practice room during music class.
Cringe-making highlights include the morning Charlie’s mom walks in on him in the bathroom a few seconds before orgasm, with his pulsing dick gripped in his fist and an aluminum cigar tube protruding from his butt. The intrusion doesn’t deter Charlie’s cock, aka “Mr Five-Incher.” Well past the point of no return, it throbs, “one last time before spitting up.” Then the cigar tube pops out and rolls across the floor as mom backs away gagging: “Ewww, sorry, sorry, ewww….” Next day, she suddenly pauses while making a salad, “eyeballing the cucumber and carrots suspiciously,” then consigning them to the trash bin.
Interspersed with the comic turns is a sensitive and moving subplot of terminal illness. Rob’s mother has Lou Gehrig’s disease, nearing its final stages as Rob and Charlie begin to date. Against the odds, Ferguson manages the messy decline and tragic demise of Rob’s mom with unerring skill. There’s even some suggestion that her death may have been a compassionate assisted suicide. What’s most impressive is that this complexity neither blunts the book’s wacky edge nor cheapens the serious issues. Rob’s grief, witnessed by a loving and helpless Charlie, is hard to watch — and convincing in every detail.
The book packs an amazing range of life experience into its coming-of-age package. Moms and dads and teachers inhabit their supporting roles as fully formed characters. At the centre of it all is goofy Charlie, repeatedly putting his foot (or dick) in it, while his smart-ass, ironic take on his own and others’ failures remains always refreshing. One quibble: as a teenage writer (his story is told in diary entries) Charlie sometimes reads more like an adult novelist than truly like himself. We occasionally hear a sophisticated, writerly voice in the diary that seems at odds with the Charlie we’ve come to know.
Do Rob and Charlie remain united through their vale of tears and blunders and sexual slapstick? It would be a crime for me to say more. Everyone who has survived high school — or is still running the gauntlet — should check out this seductive novel.