Saturday, September 18, 2010

Coffee, Toast, and a Side of Setting: A Writer’s Saturday Morning

I started a new novel today. Reading one, not writing one. A few posts back, I mentioned David Levithan (Will Grayson, Will Grayson), but hadn’t read anything else he’d written. So, this week, I made a point to pick up his critically acclaimed Boy Meets Boy from the library.

Sipping coffee and with the whole grains from my toast still stuck in my teeth, I found myself enthralled with not only Paul and Joni and Noah – but surprisingly, with the town they live in. I don’t think Mr. Levithan ever gives it a name, but we do know from a description of a serendipitous train ride that the town is close to NYC. (He mentions Paul going to the Strand – a pretty amazing bookstore, just in case you’ve never been there.)

Here’s the thing: This town, although the setting for what I’d call a realistic, contemporary young adult novel, is really sort of a fantasy. At least compared to the towns I know and those I’ve visited over the years. No dragons or (gasp!) vampires. No mystical events or magical portals, unless you count the trap door to Noah’s attic art studio.

This town, and the high school that is pivotal to the setting of the story, are accepting of each person’s differences, peaceful about issues that haunt many places in the real world, and …well…sort of whimsical, in a way. Because Levithan removes any of the expected cultural strife and conflict in this love story about gay boys, he opens up the real heart of the matter. His love story can be a love story, and not become overshadowed by the drama, hate, homophobia, and just plain meanness you might expect from a high school crowd.

It is the setting, at least in the first 75 pages of the novel, that helps create this world in which Noah can bring flowers to Paul the first time they meet on a Saturday – and Paul’s parents welcome him in for pancakes. It is the town and its clear, crisp details that make Infinite Darlene the perfect and popular cross-dressing first string quarterback for the football team. (Tiny Cooper, look out!!) It is a town where an Old Queen and a Young Punk regularly occupy a park bench, reminiscing about Broadway in the 1920s or agreeing that Sid and Nancy led the birth of a revolt.

In this town, it seems challenges that Noah and Paul will face won’t be gay-bashing, fear of being outed or the kind of hate that sometimes tucks itself into kitchen corners or under living room couch cushions. So far (again, only on page 75, people), I love the idea that these boys and their entourage of high school friends can step out of the “expected reality” and deal with the more basic – sometimes more heart wrenching – shit that happens when you first fall in love.

Here: Let me give you some examples of the language and description that struck me this morning, even before my second cup of joe.

Paul’s Room: “I worry that it’s not whimsical enough. Instead, it’s the museum of my whole life, from my Snoopys with their wardrobes to the mirror ball my parent’s got me when I graduated from fifth grade to the Wilde books still open-winged on my floor from last week’s English report.”

At the park: “…we head to the paddleboat pavilion. A lone duck greets our arrival. To our right, the skatepunks swoosh-ride on a ramp made of hemp, speeding to queercore thrash and the sound of their own bodies merging with the wind. To our left, a posse of Joy Scouts take guitar lessons from a retired monk. (We used to have a troop of Boy Scouts, but when the Boy Scouts decided gays had no place in their ranks, our Scouts decided the organization had no place in our town…”

And on a walk down main street: “We continue our tour through town, and everything is new to him: the I Scream Parlor, which shows horror movies as you wait for your double dip; the elementary school playground, where I used to tell the jungle gym all my secrets; the Pink Floyd shrine in our local barber’s backyard. I know people always talk about living in the middle of nowhere – there’s always another place (some city, some foreign country) they’d rather be. But it’s moments like this that I feel like I live in the middle of somewhere. My somewhere.”

I’m going to get another cup of coffee, hope my kids find friends to play with so they will turn off the darned cartoons, and curl up with page 76 and beyond. Here’s hoping the town lives up to my expectations for the rest of the novel.

What are you reading this morning?

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