FLAMBOYANT by Elizabeth Swados


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Playwright/novelist Swados (The Myth Man, 1994, etc.) sends an Orthodox Jewish woman to teach English in a school for gay teenagers. Chana Landau appears ill-equipped to deal with the teen prostitutes and cross-dressers at Manhattan’s Harvey Milk High. Her sheltered family home doesn’t even contain a television,and she’s working to build up a dowry for her impending marriage to the also-devout Avi Wiseman. (Appalled but intrigued by the unbuttoned atmosphere at Harvey Milk, she keeps the details of her new job from her father and fiancÇ.) But Chana’s tougher than she seems: her ability to maintain ethnic and spiritual integrity when dealing with kids intent on humiliating her through sexual innuendo attracts the interest of 15-year-old Flamboy†nt, allegedly half-Jewish and definitely a good student when she can spare time from taking drugs and turning tricks on the West Side Highway. She and Chana form a relationship that has moments of genuine tenderness, though Swados unsentimentally delineates its roots in Flamboy†nt’s lies and Chana’s patronizing good intentions. The big revelation scene (think The Crying Game) is not exactly a stunning surprise, nor is Avi’s apple-cart—upsetting visit to Harvey Milk, which prompts the predictable plot developments of the novel’s second half. Swados is a capable writer, good at capturing the gaudy, wounded voices of Flamboy†nt and her friends. The depiction of conflict between Chana’s religious beliefs and her fondness for Harvey Milk’s errant teens, however, is much less convincing; the author doesn’t convey any great understanding of or sympathy for Orthodox Judaism, and an amusingly sexy portrait of virginal lust between Chana and Avi can’t make up for the lack of a real moral alternative to the desperate nihilism of Flamboy†nt’s world. Nonetheless, smart observations and sharp character sketches make this worthwhile for serious fiction readers willing to tolerate some fundamental flaws. Problematic, but always pungent and at times penetrating. (Author tour)

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1998
ISBN: 0-312-19547-8
Page count: 244pp
Publisher: Picador
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1998


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