In this coming-of-age novel, a young, closeted gay man asserts himself and his political beliefs in the mid-1960s.
At first glance, Jason Follett’s life seems enviable: His family is wealthy and respected, and he’s a handsome fraternity brother and football star with no shortage of female suitors. Upon closer inspection, however, the cracks start to show: He’s resistant to his father’s overbearing brand of parenting; he’s begun to question the decisions of his country’s government, particularly its involvement in Vietnam; and his housemates wonder whether his lack of interest in women is a sign that he’s a homosexual. The novel opens with the insecure Jason entering Ashbury University (“The Harvard of the Midwest,” reads its billboard) as a freshman, pledging the DAE fraternity and playing on the intramural football team. But these gee-whiz, All-American attributes begin to wane as he reads poetry and grows darker and more introspective. A night carousing with a fraternity brother and friend Sue, for instance, is sidelined when he finds a dead boar in the woods and contemplates his own mortality. While Jason’s struggles are interrelated, Spang (Boy at the Screen Door, 2014) is careful to give each its due space while crafting Jason as a complex, relatable character. Often, alcohol is used to mask or blunt his feelings; in a telling shift, Sean and Randy, two upperclassmen who had hazed him when he was a pledge, become acceptable company after he’s been drinking. While Spang does admirable work getting Jason on the page, many supporting characters come across as one-dimensional, especially Jason’s father, who appears needlessly and uncomplicatedly severe toward his son. But the novel’s biggest problem is easily its length—scenes go on for pages longer than they should, sometimes merely reiterating characterizations that happened chapters earlier. Spang gets a bit more traction in the novel’s second half, when Jason’s doubts and insecurities coalesce into a new version of his personality, one in which he’s unafraid to engage his father in political debate or admit to himself that he’s interested in men.
A serviceable coming-of-age story with an engaging protagonist, though the novel could use some trimming.