After 16-year-old Stan’s deadbeat dad left him, his mother and his younger sister, Lilly, to pursue life with his mistress and their child, Stan stepped in to assume household responsibilities his contemporaries could never fathom.
Five years later, Stan walks the line between level-headed adult and bewildered teen questioning the increasing changes, urges and embarrassing erections his developing body is subjecting him to. His physical evolutions are made all the more tricky by countless sexually charged thoughts about his classmate, Janine Igwash, who just might be the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen...and a lesbian. Just when his life feels full to capacity with complications, Stan’s unremarkable father arrives on the doorstep with Stan’s never-before-seen half-brother.
Here, Tilt’s author Alan Cumyn talks about the literary value of family dysfunction, how to maneuver sexual education and the potential dangers of water mains.
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Stan endures his share of many an awkward teen moment. What is one from your own teenage years that sticks out above the rest?
My teenage years extended well into my early 20s. One frozen New Year’s Eve, I came home after a particularly disastrous date only to find all water faucets in the house dysfunctional. I went from room to room trying them, looking for some water to brush my teeth. Nothing! The whole night had gone like that.
So I gargled with red wine and slumped off to bed. In the morning, long after my parents had left the house for some reason or other, I got up to find the kitchen rug soggy and water stains running down the walls. Workmen on the street had turned off the mains for repairs during the night, and before going to bed I had failed to shut all the faucets I’d so doggedly opened. Then I completely slept through the flood that visited when the workmen turned the water back on. My father’s note in the kitchen said simply, “Why are you persecuting me?”
Why was it essential to have Lilly so optimistic, almost to the point of being delusional?
In part, Lilly is just one of those kids who lives in a world of her own construction. But of course she is also reacting to the tensions at home, to the disaster of having had her father run off. For her, the man is almost mythical—she can barely remember him, and she is so smart that she happily fills in gaps wherever they occur and creates gaps where they don’t.
I grew up with two brothers and am fascinated by the quirks of individuals and the twists of family dynamics. For me, what’s most interesting about Lilly is how Stan, her older brother, manages her. By instinct and temperament he fills in as the missing father, at least as best he can.
Is it a necessary rite of passage to realize the vulnerability and truth about your parents?
It’s a truism that we all need to forgive our parents. More forgiveness is required for some than for others. Stan has managed to slot the disaster of abandonment by his father into a manageable compartment, but the walls won’t hold, especially when the man returns with new son Feldon in tow.
It’s also a truism that a boy needs to slay his own father—metaphorically—and that’s what Stan does in a crucial confrontation scene over young Feldon. Stan sides with his half-brother; he stares down his father’s weaknesses, and like many a hero, he comes to fear those very weaknesses within himself. If it sounds like I set out to explore all these archetypes, well—I didn’t! But they obviously have strong roots in the unconscious mind.
Stan refers to his broken home as full of memories tied to catastrophe. Do you have one such memory that you keep around?
My parents went through a “rough patch,” as these things are euphemistically called, and for a while when I was a teenager, family breakdown was a real possibility. But like many couples they managed their way through it, in part by keeping their eyes firmly trained on the present, not the past.
I think I feel confident enough to write about family dysfunction because my own family has been, over all, such a source of love and strength for me. I grew up understanding that many rough waters can be navigated. As a novelist, I’m most interested in how those rough waters push us together even as they’re pulling us apart.
What do you say to parents who grapple with wondering if they’ve told their child too little or too much about sex?
My father used to teach sex ed to middle-school students—a tough gig if there ever was one. Apparently he was a terrific teacher, but he was terrible on that subject with his own sons. He was, however, a master of leaving certain books lying around, and we were a family of readers. So, to any parent who loses his or her nerve around a teenager over this most hoary of topics, I say leave certain books lying around. I don’t know; Tilt might be one of them.