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PONYBOY by Eliot Duncan


by Eliot Duncan

Pub Date: June 13th, 2023
ISBN: 9781324051220
Publisher: Norton

A troubled protagonist deals with addiction and his own becoming in this expressive bildungsroman.

This novel in four parts begins in a Paris bathroom, where the titular protagonist is getting a haircut from his best friend and flinching at the sight of his own breasts. Ponyboy and Toni “grew up and over and out of Iowa, together,” discovering their true genders alongside each other. With Toni, Ponyboy feels like himself—or at least something close to the self he longs to be. But to his girlfriend, Baby—a lesbian—his masculinity is a problem that they may not be able to resolve. Everyone involved in this ménage drinks a lot of alcohol and snorts a lot of coke, and for Ponyboy, substance abuse is a conscious attempt to escape the difficulty of being himself. His use reaches a crisis point in Berlin—where the second part of the book is set—which sends him into recovery and back to his family. The narrative is interspersed with scenes from his Midwestern youth and oddments like a letter to Sigmund Freud’s patient Dora and imagined conversations with Kathy Acker. During the first parts of the novel, Duncan deploys an arduously metaphorical style that veers from the sublime to the cartoonish. “I lose my body exceptionally” is a gorgeously economical way to describe the way Ponyboy feels liberated from his physical reality while wasted. On the other hand, “My cock-intelligence smolders in my furrowed brow” is a bit hard to take. “Back arched aching in solar want. My teeth pull on the meat of an olive.” This is an excerpt from a text sent to Baby. A very long text. An unsent email message to writer and philosopher Paul Preciado is similarly overwrought. But, as Ponyboy moves toward and through rehab, Duncan chooses a plain style that allows his protagonist to emerge as real and true—and alive.

Technically ambitious, often trying, and ultimately rewarding.