Cumming of age

Posted on 23 Apr 2009 at 1:47pm
By J.S. Hall Contributing Writer

Gawky masturbating protagonist makes debut novel touching, hilarious


The coming out/coming-of-age novel has become such a staple of gay fiction that it verges upon cliché. Granted, back in the 1980s and even 1990s, the moping angst so common to most of these stories was an accurate reflection of growing up gay during a socially conservative time when "gay" still equaled "AIDS" in many people’s minds.

For his debut novel, Drew Ferguson has taken the opposite approach. While "The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second" (Kensington, $15) has its fair share of angsty moments, a raucous joie de vivre permeates the book that makes it a laugh-out-loud delight.

Charles James Stewart, Jr. — Charlie to his friends — is a gawky, sarcastic, 17-year-old social outcast obsessed with masturbation and used to humiliation on a daily basis. Despite this, he’s not a typical sad-sack nerd, nor a queer Napoleon Dynamite. For one thing, he’s a decent soccer player (even if his teammates prefer to pretend he doesn’t exist). He has a circle of friends who look out for him. He totally sucks at driving a car, and regularly clashes with his overbearing namesake father (a.k.a. "First"), who seems to regard his son as a colossal disappointment.

Then Rob Hunt moves into town (the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake) with his parents, and turns Charlie’s life upside down. A talented musician and killer soccer player, he’s also unabashedly gay and doesn’t care who knows it. To Charlie’s utter amazement, Rob’s totally into him, and they quickly become boyfriends. Soon they’re having sex in the private choir practice rooms and queer-baiting the less tolerant members of their social circles.

And while their sex scenes are satisfyingly graphic, they’re also hilarious — especially when Charlie loses his anal virginity in a supremely tacky newlywed hotel suite during one of their away games.

The fact that the novel is written from Charlie’s point of view — ostensibly as extracts from his private journal — accounts for its hilarious excesses and gay "American Pie" moments. In one mortifying instance, Charlie’s mother walks in on him masturbating in the bathroom just before the moment of climax.

Although generally over-used, Ferguson puts this literary device to very good use here, allowing Charlie to make such snarky observations as "quirky isn’t something you date; it’s something that you make fun of until it totally loses it, runs to its bedroom, throws itself face down on its Barbie comforter, and sobs into its diary about how everyone’s so mean."

Charlie also makes frequent disparaging remarks about his parents’ rocky marriage, noting how they "fight like most people fart in church — silently and with the crippling fear that someone might notice."

Only after closing the blinds and turning on as many noisy appliances as possible will "the Ps" go at it with frosty looks and hissed threats. Small wonder, then, that he sincerely believes that "everyone my parents’ age is crazy, an asshole, or both."

Unfortunately for Charlie, things don’t remain blissful in his life for long. The Ps go through a trial separation, and Rob’s mom dies. Thanks to the misgivings of a fired nurse, Rob’s father is arrested on suspicion of murder (either by helping his terminally ill wife kill herself, or deliberately overdosing her on her meds). Since Ferguson never confirms what happened one way or another, readers (like the characters) must make up their own minds as to what happened.

Naturally, this has a devastating effect on Charlie and Rob’s relationship, and here the novel takes a more serious tone. Not only does Charlie learn some (literally) painful lessons about first love, but starts to see his father and his actions in a new light.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 24, 2009.

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