Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review: Last Exit to Normal by Michael Harmon

Ahhh. It's like the universe heard my rant the other day about gay characters in young adult fiction. While the gay men in Last Exit to Normal don't entirely fulfill what I was specifically asking for (YA books with gay protagonists that aren't about how it's ohmigosh SO HARD to be gay), it's certainly a step in the right direction and a unique addition to YA LGBT lit (gotta love that alphabet soup, huh?)

Last Exit to Nowhere doesn't spare any subtlety in relaying the basic relationships of the main characters. 17 year old Ben begins narrating the novel by telling us about the incident when he was 14 when his father came out as gay. According to Ben, this revelation absolutely destroyed the family. His mom picked up and left, and Ben began acting out - smoking pot, drinking, getting into trouble with the law - in his frustration over something he saw as his dad's fault. Ben has a poignant line that comes up several times throughout the book to explain his anger at his father: the only reason Ben exists is because his father was too much of a coward to acknowledge his sexual orientation, and instead lied to himself and his family for years.

After a particularly egregious run-in with the law, Ben's father and his partner, Edward, decide that the only way Ben will truly become rehabilitated is if he's completely removed from the bad influences in Spokane, Washington and the whole family moves back to Edward's rural hometown in Montana.

Life isn't easy back in Montana for anyone. The men move in with Edward's mother, a tough old broad who is set in her ways and isn't afraid to let Ben know it. But ultimately, while she doesn't agree with Edward's lifestyle "choice" she does love her son and is willing to respect Ben provided that he show her the proper respect first. More difficult, though not unexpected, are the small town bigotries about a skateboard punk from the big city and his two dads. Ben is used to being hassled over having a gay father, but that doesn't mean he likes the situation.

What he dislikes more, however, is the situation at his new next-door neighbor's house. On their first day in Rough Butte, Mr. Hinks comes over and tells the newcomers that he doesn't have any particular problem with them, but they're to stay away from him and his son. But after Ben witnesses Mr. Hinks beating his son with a belt, Ben can't stay away. He quietly and semi-secretly befriends 11 year old Billy, determined to help the boy out in any way he can.

Along the way, Ben begins to learn what it's like to put in a hard day's work, and what it truly means to be a man.

I absolutely loved how the relationship between Ben and his dad was portrayed here, even though it's an incredibly painful and awkward relationship at times. Ben has a lot of frustration and anger built up towards his father, and perhaps it's not all unjustified. But perhaps best of all, Ben's father isn't just a gay dad - it's not like Ben's angry just because his father is gay. To me, it seemed like Ben's dad did everything right that he possibly could - after he came out, he put himself and Ben in therapy, he read all the parenting books he could find about raising troubled teenagers, etc. On the other hand, however, it's very easy to see why all of this would be semi-infuriating to Ben and cause him to lash out more.

I also really liked Edward. He's cheeky and snarky, and definitely gets along with Ben (who is also often cheeky and snarky), but then at other times he steps back and is definitely in the role of step-parent. It's a great blend that works well to build him into a well-rounded character and not just a flat "Boyfriend" character.

This is a book that is going to ring true with a lot of teenagers, even ones that don't have gay parents. Ben's frustration with his father is something universal, and watching their relationship evolve is a story a lot of us need to see.
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