High school junior Seamus Rafael Goldberg (call him Rafe) is openly gay and lives in relatively tolerant Boulder, Colorado. Until, that is, he decides to move across the country and enroll in an all-male boarding school in Natick, Massachusetts, where everyone assumes he’s straight.
And that’s exactly the way Rafe wants it.
That’s the premise of Bill Konigsberg’s poignant, funny, and smart YA novel Openly Straight. Feeling constricted by the label “openly gay,” Rafe sees his move to Massachusetts as a way to reinvent himself: “As of tomorrow, I was going to have new skin, and that skin could look like anything, would feel different than anything I knew yet. And that made me feel a little bit like I was about to be born. Again.” His plan seems to be working when he makes new friends with the Natick jocks, fabricates a girlfriend out of his (platonic) best friend back home, and convinces his parents to go along with his deception.
But then he meets Ben, a classmate who knows nothing of Rafe’s past. And when Rafe finds himself falling in love with Ben, his plan to “be this new, uncomplicated Rafe” starts to seem a lot more complicated.
YA Guy has a confession to make: I’ve not read much YA with gay protagonists. That’s not a reflection of the genre but of me: I’ve not sought such books out. A lot of the YA I read is fantasy and sci-fi, where--as in Rafe’s Natick--heterosexuality tends to be assumed; I’d love for someone to point me toward some good speculative YA with queer characters. But in any event, what this means is that Openly Straight was something of a revelation for me, and a good one at that.
I liked Konigsberg’s novel for a number of reasons: its marvelous portrait of Rafe, who learns to his surprise that “being able to pass for something you’re not is a kind of curse”; its representation of young male camaraderie, where allegiances can sour in an instant and physical play can turn to desire; its refusal to sentimentalize or resort to easy stereotypes (misunderstood youth versus repressive parents, etc.). In that respect, the only slightly false note for me was Rafe’s kindly writing instructor at Natick, whose suggestion that Rafe keep a journal expressing privately what he can’t admit publicly seemed not only a bit of a stretch--would Rafe really jump at this chance to reveal himself to someone he barely knew?--but a too-convenient means of communicating Rafe’s internal struggles to the reader. (Not only that, but the teacher’s unfailingly supportive comments made me, a not-always-kindly English teacher, feel like a real jerk.)
This blog, as you know, focuses on guy books--though as I’ve pointed out, that ends up being a much broader category than it might appear. So is it fair to call Openly Straight a “gay book”? Well, on the one hand, Rafe’s journey to understand and embrace his sexuality is what the book’s about. But on the other, Openly Straight belongs to a long tradition of coming-of-age novels, be the protagonist’s sexuality what it may. As Konigsberg reminds us, labels are perilous, and I’d be reluctant to place undue restrictions on his wonderful book.