In this debut novel, Kent Tucker is sent to a state hospital in 1950s Appalachia to “cure” his homosexuality, leading to terrible compulsions and crimes as an adult.
In 1986, Sarah Tucker learns that son Kent, a child murderer, has died in prison. “He just came out wrong,” she muses. Shifting back to 1957, Sarah and husband Herb run a bar in Appalachia. Herb forces 12-year-old Kent to play baseball, but the puny boy proves embarrassing. Then a schoolmate puts Kent’s hand on his penis and, when caught, implies Kent was the instigator. The principal arranges for a “cure” in the state hospital. There, Kent deals with a theorizing doctor (boys lure older men into sex, etc.) and is raped by a male attendant. Upon release, life hellishly continues, with Herb prone to violence and schoolmates even trying to electroshock his genitalia. Jumping ahead to 1963, Kent returns to the hospital several times and drops out of school at 16. Now dreaming of escape, he steals money from the bar but is caught by Sarah. Put on probation, he lives on his aging grandparents’ farm. Herb beats Sarah one time too many, and she divorces him and soon remarries and inherits the farm, which she then sells. Kent now goes to prison, caught again by Sarah for swiping a case of beer for some local kids. He becomes the “punk” of another inmate and is gang-raped prior to being released. Kent tries to start life over, even getting married, but is increasingly drawn to young boys, leading to tragic encounters and his final end. First-time novelist Wears has crafted a gripping, sometimes overly brutal and melodramatic narrative to explain the trajectory of a character whose fate is stated at the start of this novel. The hospital scenes are particularly powerful, laying the groundwork for Kent’s psychosexual fantasies. Sarah’s detachment is chilling even in rather sparse detail, with one wishing for a bit more development in this area. Overall, however, it’s a sad and cautionary tale that leaves a mark.
Haunting look at bad science, bad parenting and the making of a damaged individual.