Former Texan explores family ties that bind and occasionally gag
"Someday you’ll move to New York City, and you’ll write all about me. You’ll be my little Truman Capote."
Many (if not most) gay men have close relationships with their mothers. But teenaged Robert O’Doole’s was closer than most. Every Saturday, he and his mother would drive the 100 miles from rural Petunia, Texas to Houston so that she could get her wigs cut and restyled at Neiman Marcus while they enjoyed lunch in the tearoom. His father considered their bond "unnormal," but it only strengthened when he left Robert’s mother for a female jockey he’d already impregnated.
In equal parts of awe and horror, "The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy" recounts the desperate lengths Jessica O’Doole would go to in order to acquire a new husband preferably filthy rich and not long for this world who’d keep her in the lifestyle she’d become accustomed to.
Although still rather glamorous at 45, Mother soon resorted to lip and breast implants and a new head of fake hair to enhance her sex appeal. She even sought new hunting grounds: "From now on, Robert, I vote with the Democrats and lunch with the Republicans!"
Like some unstoppable force of nature, Jessica effortlessly dominates the proceedings, like an Auntie Mame or perhaps an older, wiser, more calculating Anna Nicole Smith for the "Nip/Tuck" generation. Who can’t sympathize with her reckless attempts to cling to her youth and the outrageous lengths she goes to? Admittedly, she’s the sort of person who barges through life without a second thought for those caught up in her wake. But one can’t help admiring a mother who would spend hours coming up with the perfect put-downs for the mean girls who picked on her son at school.
Unsurprisingly, Robert and Mother share a close yet prickly relationship, exchanging scathing remarks one moment, then forgiving each other almost immediately. For example, after she meets her next-husband-to-be on an airplane flight, Mother is ecstatic, Robert less so: "There’s something vulgar about falling in love with a man on public transportation," he proclaims.
"Well, it was first class, Robert," she retorts.
While the first half of "Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy" concentrates on Jessica’s increasingly grotesque antics, the second half focuses on Robert’s blossoming into a full-fledged homosexual and embarking on a relationship with his future husband, a 25-year-old choreographer named Michael Leleux. In no time at all, Robert becomes part of the sprawling Leleux family, a clan of close-knit Cajuns who provide him with much-needed stability.
Here, the narrative loses some of its momentum. Because the focus shifts from mercurial Mother to her not-yet-as-dynamic son, perhaps this is inevitable. Also, with the constant threat of instability to say nothing of poverty removed, the dynamic tension relaxes more than it ought to.
Things settle down from manhunting to domesticity. And while the proceedings gain heart and substance Mom Yvelle’s earthy wisdom, dispensed from the kitchen, provides a much-needed counterbalance to Jessica’s self-centered anarchy they aren’t nearly as much fun. Also, a late reconciliation between Robert and his father feels forced and just doesn’t ring true.
Following in the dysfunctional footsteps of gay memoirists like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, Robert Leleux has made in especially strong debut with "The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy." His writing is snappily paced, brimming with sardonic humor and cutting observations. And he balances the tartness with heart-felt moments especially after Yvelle admonishes, "A joke’s only funny if two people laugh."
It’s also refreshing to read a memoir written by a gay man where the fact of his homosexuality isn’t a source of anxiety. In fact, Leleux milks to great comic effort his family’s blasÃ© reaction after he comes out. "How could you be my child and not be gay?" Mother demands. "Women like me always have gay children. Cher, Lana Turner, Queen Elizabeth. My God, look at Queen Elizabeth."
Her constant barrage of eminently quotable one-liners, coupled with the reader’s implicit knowledge that she adores her son, saves Jessica from being a total caricature, and makes reading this book a thoroughly guilty delight.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 29, 2008.