THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS by Jonathan A.  Taylor

THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS

The Rites of Passage
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A debut novel introduces a gay teenager coming-of-age in 1970s Detroit.

Jamie Goldberg’s mother takes him out of school to attend protests and single-handedly forces his district’s desegregation (which makes him something of a pariah). His father ignores him in favor of watching Detroit Tigers games on TV. As Jamie’s sexuality develops, he’s filled with an unshakable sense of guilt. He knows he should be attracted to the women in the Playboy that his brother gives him, but he can’t help but fantasize about a male classmate instead. Jamie hopes to talk to his older cousin Harold about these feelings (he has intimated that he might be the same way). But then Harold dies tragically of a heroin overdose. Jamie finds solace in Hesse, Nietzsche, and the operas of Wagner. “The music was also obscenely sensual to me,” he writes of Tannhäuser. “Ecstatic thoughts could freely float in and out of my mind, unattached to anyone or anything. The music had no gender.” After a stranger takes his virginity at age 15, Jamie realizes he has crossed a line that can’t be uncrossed. While he wishes to escape to New York and a new life, he is forced by circumstances to remain in Detroit for college. Even so, college provides him an avenue to explore all the things he’s spent his adolescence hoping for (and fearing): music, theater, love, community—and a world where, to many people, he is a pervert. Can Jamie ever overcome his guilt, silence his fears, and find happiness in a life so different from the one he was raised to expect?

In his series opener, Taylor tells the story from Jamie’s perspective in a polished prose enlivened with the protagonist’s neurotic humor: “He couldn’t reach his pen so I shot out of my chair and tried to pick it up. I accidentally knocked it away. I chased after it, picked it up, and handed the pen back to him. I plopped back down in my chair, hoping he’d forget the whole thing.” Jamie is thoughtful and highly sympathetic, and readers will be happy to follow him through the formative years of his youth. Taylor succeeds in capturing various moments (however painful or awkward) and revealing their importance. The author manages to illustrate the time and place of the novel with sharply selected details, contextualizing Jamie’s development in surprising ways. But when readers consider the Proustian task Taylor has set out for himself—this 450-page book only gets Jamie through age 20, and more volumes will follow—they may begin to wonder if the topic is truly fertile enough for the scope of the project. Despite the wit and charm that the author brings to this bildungsroman, it’s difficult to say that it contains anything that hasn’t already been covered extensively in fiction (often in fewer pages). The prospect of future, similarly verbose works devoted to Jamie might not fill readers with the same enthusiasm that clearly motivates Taylor.

A well-crafted, if not groundbreaking, tale about a gay teen in the Midwest.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2018
Page count: 462pp
Program: Kirkus Indie
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