After the Fall Quarter was finished, I looked around my study for something fun to read. I tried reading Wuthering Heights again, but, while it’s a great book, it wasn’t what I was in the mood for. I started reading A Passage to India, the only E. M. Forster I haven’t read, but that too didn’t work. I decided I wanted something gay (or maybe I should say gayer than Forster), so I rooted about in my bookshelves and piles of random books and picked up K. M. Soehnlein‘s The World of Normal Boys, a coming out story about a kid named Robin set in 1978.

I think I bought TWoNB a couple of years ago. I had been in a gay book club and had gotten tired of having to mail in the little cards telling them not to send me each month’s selection, so I decided to order a few books all at once, complete my obligatory number of purchases, and then cancel my membership. This was one of the novels that sounded interesting. Unfortunately, when I got the books in the mail, I started reading one of the other novels, which wasn’t very good. When I couldn’t get into that one, I figured all three of the books I ordered must not be any good, so I set them on a shelf and forgot about them.

So, after I picked it off the shelf again, I didn’t have very high expectations. Much to my surprise, however, I quickly fell in love with this book. Here’s how it begins:

Maybe this is the moment when his teenage years begin. An envelope arrives in the mail addressed to him from Greenlawn High School. Inside is a computer-printed schedule of classes. Robin MacKenzie. Freshman. Fall, 1978. He has been assigned to teachers, placed in a homeroom. His social security number sits in the upper right corner, emphasizing the specter of faceless authority. Someone, some system of decision making, has organized his next nine months into fifty-minute periods, and here is his notification. This is what you will learn. This is when you will eat. This is when you go home to your family at 135 Bergen Avenue. This is how you will live your life, Robin MacKenzie.

I really like how this first paragraph manages to capture that moment of getting your schedule for high school classes for the first time. It also reminds me of my own distaste for high school: that the faceless authority (which became increasingly faced as I came to know the school and its administrators better) that dictated every aspect of our lives while we were in high school. (I remember the principals and/or teachers getting all upset one year because too many people were wearing shorts that were shorter than the required length — not several inches shorter, but just an inch or two. I think they were supposed to come to your knees or something like that. They even considered banning shorts altogether but deemed it unlikely to work due to the Texas heat.)

Anyway, TWoNB immediately took me back to my own high school years, and I found that I was able to identify with Soehnlein’s protagonist, who is just coming to terms with his attraction to other boys. For Robin, the world of “normal boys” is a foreign land fraught with pitfalls, shame, and all sorts of fears for boys who aren’t “normal,” boys who are caught looking at their classmates’ crotches or who don’t speak the language of football, car repair, and heterosexuality. In this sense, I thought Robin was a kind of everygayboy or least a version of someone very much like me at that age.

But Robin’s coming out is made more difficult by the fact that his family soon faces an unexpected tragedy that threatens to rip his parents’ marriage apart. If Robin’s interest in other boys’ bodies weren’t enough to confuse him and fill him with shame, this tragedy compounds all of his doubts and fears about himself and his place in the world. I found all of his reactions — sexual, intellectual, and emotional — to himself, or other boys, and to his family’s situation to be very believable.

I also really liked that Soehnlein investigates Robin’s discovery of sex in both a sensitive and a relatively graphic way. He doesn’t shy away from moments in which Robin discovers what his pubescent body can now do, the pleasures it can give him and to others. These scenes also seem very true.

Finally, I also really like the way the book ends. After a lot of good and bad things happen to our protagonist, I worried that Soehnlein would have a difficult time ending the book in a satisfactory manner, but he pulls it off. I especially like that, while the book doesn’t minimize the damage that’s been done to Robin emotionally over the course of the plot, it nevertheless ends in a moment of empowerment and self-acceptance.

The World of Normal Boys definitely suited the mood I was in. It’s a great read — realistic, sexy, enjoyable, and tragic (just like high school). I only wish I had read it sooner; if I had I would have taught it next quarter. I highly recommend it.

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