Thursday, September 01, 2005

Coming Out: A First YA Novel

David LaRochelle, Absolutely, Positively Not (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005).

David LaRochelle has written many books for children, but Absolutely, Positively Not is his first novel aimed at young adults. It tells the story of Steven Denarski who, over the course of his sophomore year in high school in a small Minnesota town, recognizes and comes to terms with the fact that he’s gay. I liked the book but not as much as I expected that I would. My thoughts on various aspects of the book are outlined below.

Narrative Voice: Steven serves as first person narrator, and I didn’t find his voice altogether convincing as a teenage voice, particularly in the early chapters. Admittedly, he isn’t supposed to be a very hip teenager, but he sometimes sounded to me more like an adult’s idea of a teenager than an actual teenager. These instances jarred me out of the narrative, but there were fewer of them as I got further into the book.

Humour: For the most part, the humour of the book is a real strength. When I was in high school, books depicting gay teenagers were few and far between. The odd ones that I came across, even if they purported to be sympathetic, were very serious, capital “I” issue books that were relentlessly bleak. The gentle humour with which Steven’s struggle with his sexual identity is treated here is refreshing and, frankly, strikes me as a real mark of social progress. That is not to say that the book downplays the difficulty or the dangers of Steven’s situation. The isolation that he feels in his hockey mad town is very effectively rendered. On the whole, LaRochelle achieves a nice balance between humour and seriousness.

However, there were a couple of key moments in the book when the humour was far too over-the-top for me. I’m thinking particularly of the scene in which Steven avoids taking a girl to the school dance by taking a pet Golden Retriever as his date. In a recent interview, the author revealed that this scene was actually the genesis of the whole book. It began as a humorous short story and, when it was well received, LaRochelle decided to expand it into a novel. This was an illuminating detail for me. I can see how the story might have served as a bridge between LaRochelle’s earlier works and this one. But while the subject matter brings it into teenage territory, the type of humour seems better tailored to children. It’s just not sophisticated enough for a teenaged audience. Regardless of its status as the seed of the novel, this scene ought to have been excised from the final version.

Stereotypes: Some of the best parts of the book come from the upending of stereotypes. Steven (and the reader along with him) is often surprised by the actions and reactions of various characters. In particular, there are some lovely unexpected moments in Steven’s interactions with his parents. But in some of the worst parts, stereotypes are actively employed. I was particularly disappointed that Steven’s best friend Rachel repeatedly came off as a cardboard rendition of a misguided liberal rather than as a real person. She could have been so much more complex and interesting.

Sex: Steven’s sexual fantasies are not so graphic as to overwhelm the emotional story, but they're not overly sanitized either. Again, LaRochelle achieves a nice balance here.

Overall: Absolutely, Positively Not is uneven to begin with, and it has a few serious flaws. But ultimately it offers up a good story told with gentle humour and poignancy.

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