If I could pick any writer to call up and go eat french fries with when I’m getting ridiculous mixed messages from somebody cute and/or important, it would be David Levithan, hands down (Am I the only one who keeps a very specific wishlist of author encounters? I also want to make lasagna with Tony Kushner, play dress up and dance my heart out with Francesca Lia Block, and commit some minor, cheerful crimes with Maureen Johnson.) Levithan just has this sweet wisdom about how people fit together, whether in friendship, romance, or awkward acquaintanceship. And, like a conversation with a good friend whose advice you take seriously, Levithan’s books don’t come off like a pep talk on what to do with your love life. It’s more like, “Hey buddy, I know you. I know people who are like the people you know. Here are some jokes that are also profoundly true. I believe you’ll do the right thing sooner or later. I’m glad we’re talking.”
So why, if I so appreciate Mr. Levithan, has it taken me eight years to get around to reading Boy Meets Boy—arguably his most seminal work? I’m not going to bother pleading busyness, financial ruin, or my tendency to slack on even the most delightful of pursuits. No, I was deliberately putting it off, fairly certain that this book was going to damage my opinion of the man, and every review I read just made me stall for more time. “At last, a book about gay utopia!” crowed the reviews, and I chewed my lip doubtfully. I’m all for gay characters—especially those whose central struggle is something other than the usual coming-out-amidst-adversity-and-homophobic-persecution rigmarole—but is there anything duller than a book about happy, magical, perfect funland? But I should have known better than to think Levithan would subject me to such perfection.
Yes, Paul (our protagonist) lives in a town that is queerer than most, in all the best senses of the word. Yes, he comes out in kindergarten, campaigns for third grade class president with the slogan “I’M GAY!” and freely dates in high school. Yes, the quarterback at said high school doubles as the homecoming queen, the GSA is mainly for the benefit of the straight kids, and the idea of “safe spaces” is pretty redundant, since there’s no more flack for same-sex flirting in the bookstore than there is at the queer bar. But the premise at work here is not: “What if everything were beautiful and nothing hurt?” It’s not even: “What if everybody totally understood and respected each other’s differences 110%?” It’s more like: “What if being religious or macho or a member of the Boy Scouts of America didn’t pass as an excuse for intolerance? What if people had to really own whatever prejudices they harbored?” The hypothesis, as far as I can tell, is that hate is too heavy to lug very far without institutional muscle. Most people have neither the fortitude nor the inclination not to let it go of hatred if left to their own devices. This makes the setting idyllic, but not inconceivably (or insipidly) so.
More than anything, I love that Levithan set this story in such a town. There’s a common thread in the literature of queer teen liberation (fiction and non-fiction, page, stage, and big screen). It says: “One day you’ll get out of this place. You’ll escape to the big city—almost any big city will do—and you will frolic freely amongst your brethren in the land of public anonymity and holding hands with whomever you please.” That’s true enough for a lot of people, but it precludes a whole kind of story that can only happen in a community of a certain size. Thank you, David Levithan, for this town where everybody’s known each other since kindergarten and businesses find creative ways to encourage loitering. Where everybody keeps their VCRs because the guy who runs the local video store is a tapehead, and the dead are like friends who moved away but still write often. Paul is so well-developed as a character because the townspeople aren’t just background to his story: Paul is made up of what he knows about them and what they have come to expect from him. One problem with the get-the-grown-ups-out-of-the-way mode of storytelling for young people is that it prevents you from seeing who the protagonists really are. In Boy Meets Boy, we see who Paul is from many different angles, not just who he is around his peers.
It’s been said that the too-short novel is a rarity. Maybe, but that’s my principal complaint about this one. Boy Meets Boy begins and ends at the perfect moments, and there’s so much good stuff in the middle, but—and maybe this is just the inevitable downfall of constructing a town so compellingly—there are so many untold stories. Paul has so many friends, rivals, and acquaintances that I wish there were time to get to know them all a little better. Hey Levithan, it’s not too late for a sequel, you know . . .
Laura Forsythe resides in Kingston, Ontario where she is always slouching and usually singing crude songs about household tasks, but she doesn’t draw on her hands as much as she used to, so they may make an adult of her yet. She keeps a blog about books and junk at http://ohmynoti.blog.com/