Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Barracuda - a Young Gay Teen Novel

A significant contribution to gay teen literature, but not without its exasperating flaws.

I had to struggle to finish this book, but I persevered to the end because I respected the author's intentions and his deliberate efforts to integrate the gay sexuality of his central character into the narrative without making it a central issue. We are still in dire need of gay fictional treatments of the difficulties of coming out and dealing with homophobia and gay bashing - witness the continuing spate of young gay teen suicides or the most recent draconian legal attacks on gay people in Uganda. Nonetheless, there is a countervailing need to see gay characters integrated into quite  ordinary life stories, dealing with the commonplace conflicts and challenges of simply being human. Barracuda fits into this latter category. Never once is the sexuality of his central character made an issue in his ongoing struggles with profound shame, inferiority, humiliation and the concomitant explosions of rage and violence that result. This is a story of a young teen male struggling with a profound insecurity which he seeks to heal by striving to be an Olympic level swimmer. When he fails miserably at his attempts, his own inner world collapses, and he is filled with rage and fury, which he seeks to exorcise throughout the remainder of the book. I could never quite get a handle on the ultimate source of his profound emptiness - other than some sketches of his difficult relationship with his father, and his humiliation at being a wog (of  Greek ancestry) on scholarship among his upper class peers and the 'golden boys' of his school swimming team. Nonetheless, while it was refreshing that his sexuality was never made a central issue, this omission was very strange in a character dealing with profound humiliation and shame. Had it been another set of conflicts, it would have been understandable. But for this reader, it didn't quite work. It was a clever attempt, however, on the part of Christos Tsiolkas. Why not present a gay character who has deep conflicts of inferiority and shame quite unrelated to his 'alternative' sexuality - which he simply accepts as an unremarkable part of his nature and not a contributing factor to his psychic dilemma. There is one very refreshing, bold 'coming out' admission on the part of Christ to his cousin that is not a 'coming out' at all, simply an admission that, just as his cousin misses contacts with girls, Chris misses sexual contact with males. And that is that.

My problem with the book, which other readers share, is that the focus on Chris' inner turmoil is so relentless, repetitive and intense it eventually wears the reader down. It is simply repeated again and again and again, and the end result is to make the character - for much, but not all of the book - a very unattractive person to be with.

What I found to be a great narrative strength, however, is the alternating time spans - covering four phases in the young man's life, from the traumatic early teens, through young adulthood with a male partner. We are switched from one to another and back again, for no readily apparent reason, but this worked for me. Other readers have stated they would have preferred to have grown along with the character. But I couldn't have stood his constant raging and fuming without some respite and without the very clear insight the future flash forwards provide us of a young man who eventually through many painful trials manages to rescue himself from his debilitating neurosis. I thought it was a fascinating look at the way a character can, quite simply, grow up, and it added to the mystery of human development. There were also some remarkable surprises in these flash forwards (no spoilers here).

Lastly, the physicality of the character - which some more genteel readers found offensive - I found refreshing, because it grounded the character in the very real gritty experience of the average teenage boy, acutely conscious of the workings of his body, including pissing, shitting, farting, ejaculating. The incidents in which these bodily functions were described were very sparse and few and far between, just enough to give a believable sense of the sensitivities of an ordinary adolescent. This is a part of being human and part of the 'shame' all of us must come to accept about being ensconced in an animal body. Kudos to Tsiolkas for not shirking from it.

In the end, this is a tortuous, arduous journey of redemption, but I found the end result to be believable and true. I just wish it hadn't been so exhausting to get there.

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