Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Gays at war -- Vietnam, that is

Whenever I reread this novel (or parts of it; you can read a few pages here and there, jump ahead, turn around, or leave it) I still can't believe it was published 27 YEARS ago by a mainstream publisher. It was done in 1981 by Avon, and re-re-re-reprinted. I think I have a 10th edition paperback. You see the cover scan right here.

THE BOY... is diarist's dream. It's told journal-style, in the form of letters to a variety of people. The whole thing revolves around Kurt Strom, a young gay guy from Detroit and parts south-east, who enlisted in the US Army to go to Vietnam as a medic. It would have been a hell of a book, even if Kurt wasn't gay.

But he is, and the book is amazing. It's not just gay, it's very gay. It's explicit, never pulls punches, says it all ... in 1981, in the mainstream press! I don't know how writer Charles Nelson and/or the publishers got away with it. But I'm glad they did.

There's an ultimate novel for every war. Or maybe for the whole "genre" of war. You can name books like THE CRUEL SEA, and RED BADGE OF COURAGE and so on. The "ultimate" novels are not stories about derring do and glory. They're usually about the evils of war. Or at least they tell the story of the people, not the action, and what it costs human beings to do the things that look heroic and glorious in the newspapers.

If we were talking about movies, I'd name GALLIPOLI right here. (It's actually been called a gay movie, but the jury is still out on that score. Watch it yourself, make up your own mind!)

But we're talking books. And there's just not that many books about gays in war. (I'm going to be reviewing and recommending a couple in weeks to come...)

THE BOY... is also close to unique because it's set in the Vietnam War. Everything else I know is set in WWI and II. And here's where it crosses over a line from "good" to "great." Because it not only tells the story of a gay guy in the Army, in the field, under fire ... it also tells the story of real people in the Vietnam war.

It's a fantastic book if you're in the mood for something different. It's also funny and moving at times. You'll learn so much about war in general, and the Vietnam war in particular. And the gay content has such a "real" feeling about it that this could actually be a problem for some readers.

Loads of readers of gay books are women, and their preference is often (but not always) for a sort of soft-edge fiction that's written by a lot of gay writers (male and female). THE BOY... doesn't have this soft-edge romantic approach. It's a slice of life. In fact, it's a slice of life that's still bleeding. Charles Nelson tells a guy's story, from a guy's POV, in a guy's language. The realism is 120%. So, if your favorite gay read is something more like Mike Seabrook or Chris Hunt, you might find THE BOY... too raw.

But even if you find it too raw, read it anyway, because I think of it as an absolute milestone. You may not end up loving it, but you're not likely to ever forget it. And that's another mark of a really great novel. Highly Recommended. AG's rating: 5 out of 5.


Anonymous,  December 9, 2008 at 6:36 PM  

This looks great, will defnitely keep an eye out for it in the 2nd hand book stores. :)