Burdened with a clunky title, and far too close in tone to early Salinger, Brown's appealing debut nevertheless captures the traumatic process of growing up gay in an oppressively straight world. Human society has yet to devise a straighter institution than the American high school, which is where a glib but confused Ben Smith finds himself at the story's outset—as a freshman toting a hot-pink notebook in which he summarizes his daily trials, triumphs, and observations. Ben's homosexuality is not an issue that Brown leaves open for debate: The kid's as gay and proud as any closeted 14-year-old can be. But Ben has larger immediate problems than his emerging sexuality: From his besotted father to his weeping mother to his ultra-religious grandmother, not to mention a dim-wit brother, Ben's family life looks like a white- trash version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not to mention that the miserable clan lives behind a gas station. After a brief spell of mooning over his history teacher, Ben falls in with Aaron Silver, the bright new thing in Chappaqua, Maine. A child of liberal Jewish parents, Aaron sports an earring and almost immediately exhausts his welcome with school administrators when he begins publishing, aided by Ben, an incendiary underground newspaper. Endlessly annoying to the powers-that-be in their corseted environment, Ben and Aaron fall swiftly in love and start fooling around, an activity that Brown depicts with a refreshing if at times YA restraint. The issue here is that neither boy outs the other—they were both comfortably gay before they met. They do manage, however, to introduce themselves to the possibility of love and devotion (and adolescent obsessions)—a series of life lessons that troubles plenty of waters and, predictably, wrecks innocence forever. Not as good as Edmund White, but still an insightful first effort distinguished by punchy language and a solid emotional core.
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