Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Gay and coming of age in '68: John Fox's Boys on the Rock

First, my apologies to all regular visitors: I haven't been able to blog for about four days. It's just too hot! If you don't live in a part of the world that Lance Armstrong last weekend called "insanely hot," you might not be able to imagine trying to do anything at all in a room that's cooking your computer to death. So ... sorry for the delay. But I'm back. (Never really left, just couldn't blog!)

Today's review will come as a surprise to some of you. It's not my usual fare -- in fact, when I borrowed this book from a pal (a loooong time ago), I didn't expect to like it. I was in for an awakening, and I've had fond thoughts about John Fox's one and only book, The Boys on the Rock, ever since.

It's a damned shame that John Fox passed away, because he would ave gone on to be a remarkable writer with a lot to add to the corpus of gay fiction. Alas he was yet another AIDS victim, and his legacy is this one book, which was put out by Saint Martin's Press in 1993. A couple of editions have been done, and I'm fairly sure it's back in print right now. Copes are readily available from Amazon, with a different cover from the original; and I'm going to recommend it, even if it's not your "usual" thing in reading! Why would I recommend it for that specific reason? Because it'll stretch you, make you use your brain cells to see other people's points of view and appreciate different lifestyles. Which I think is important in a world that's still struggling to achieve freedom, tolerance and respect for all.

The Boys on the Rock is a coming of age story (which I don't usually go for because you can only read so many of them before they all sound alike), and a (teenage) love story. It's a very short piece -- I'd call it more of a novella than a full novel. (It's about the same length as something like Windrage or Tiger, Tiger.) The good thing about "short reads" like this is that you can finish them in a single bite. Also the author has the opportunity to tackle ONE subject, finish dealing with it and finish the novel. There's a lot to be said for the "singular voice" and the "singular theme."

John Fox certainly had a "singular voice." He managed to make The Boys... actually sound like it was written (sometimes gabbled!) by a sixteen y.o. boy who was just discovering his feelings, and falling in love. There's a massive skill in this. A fair few writers who're adults are in the business of writing "young adult novels," and I have to say, the kids in their books don't sound like real kids. Not even kids from 1968, which is when The Boys... is set. (It's a historical too, as you can see, which to me adds to its interest factor.) However, John Fox has the teenage boy of the late 1960s "voice" down pat.

Now, forty years later, younger readers might even have to work out what some of the slang means! For those of us who were there at the time (okay, I was six, but I as there, damnit) there's no problem.

Books about randy teens are not my usual fare, but this one is very good. I can usually take or leave this kind of book, but The Boys... is a young man's story, written by a young man, in a young man's voice. It has a power of Truth about it that made it wonderful to me. (As a woman, I found this story opened a doorway into the mind and heart of a teenage lad and showed me what they might be thinking and feeling. And yes, I realize a lot of readers would say, "I really don't care what a 16 y.o. is thinking!", but a lot more readers do care, or would care if they gave themselves a chance to find out.)

The storyline is fairly simple, or at least linear. Boy meets boy. Boys fall in love. Boys have sexy fling. Boys ... start drifting apart once again, when teenage love unravels itself, as if normally does at that age.

The novella doesn't have a traditional happy ending: the character of Billy, who's the narrator, is not ready to settle down into a long-term affair. Few kids his age are! But the book does have a sort of happy ending. Billy's coming of age affair was a learning experience with some emotional highs as well as the lows, and even though you can feel the sadness at the end of the book, Billy has grown so much as a human being and as a young man, that you end the book certain that he'll be able to make a good life for himself -- and find a long-lasting relationship when the time's right. I remember even wondering at the time I first read this, if Billy and his first love might be back together one day when they've, uh, grown up a bit. Nice fantasy!

Does the book have a downside? Well, it depends who you are. If you're a young gay gay guy, you should love this; if there's a boy left hiding inside you, you'll love it; if you're a friend, sis, mom, aunt or even gran of a teen just coming out, you'll take this book to your heart. If you're just plain interested in what might be going on in the mind and heart of a gorgeous young boy -- again, you'll probably love this! If the above have absolutely no interest to you (say, George Clooney in a tux, with a brandy in one hand, is more your style...) you won't get much out of it. Also, the book is very short (shorter than Jackal in the Dark), and if you want something longer, this one might disappoint. Lastly, it' set in 1968, which is now 40 years ago, and some younger readers might find it "obsolete" for this reason. I'm sure John Fox chose the time setting deliberately. To begin with, it was the era when gay Pride was really getting into gear. Second, it was just before AIDS sprang up and started taking victims in the gay male community. In 1968, kids could (and did) have wild affairs without thinking about the consequences, and most of them got away with it (except the gals who came home pregnant ... not that this was ever going to be a problem to gay kids, but ...!)

Recommended for a lazy afternoon's read -- or a rainy evening. AG's rating: 3.5 out of 5, or maybe even 4, depending on the mood I'm in at the time! Get a good deal on it from Amazon, and if you like this, you might also like Glamourpus. and Jackal in the Dark (follow the link above).


Kait March 28, 2012 at 10:10 AM  

I'm in the middle of reading this for a class right now in college (I'm majoring in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies) and haven't decided quite how I feel about it yet but I appreciate your review and look forward to finishing it and seeing what I think then. :) I agree that Billy seems to be quite a gem of a guy.