Thursday, February 26, 2009

Truth in fiction

A few weeks ago, when I finished reading Revolutionary Road, I declared myself temporarily through with books with sad endings. I wasn't even in the mood for a bittersweet ending. After the run-the-hot-water and prepare-the-razor-blades emotional roller coaster that was Revolutionary Road, I was ready for a reading experience that was going to make me feel good.

It was for this reason that I picked up Frank Anthony Polito's debut novel Band Fags - a work of fiction "based on a true story" but, according to Polito is "only about 30% factual." Regardless, it starts off strong and never really lets up.

I had purchased Band Fags for Heidi as a Christmas present. It was wrapped in the same package as this book (which she had been wanting for quite some time) and ultimately it was the "make the Yuletide gay" part of her Christmas gift (all of her gifts were themed this year.) I can't remember where I first heard about Band Fags, but I am pretty sure it was via Matthew Rettenmund's blog Boy Culture. The more I read about the book, the more I was convinced I wanted to read it. I think the fact that it featured main characters going through their teenage years at roughly the same time I did was the most appealing part. Even though I don't look back on my high school experience with a great deal of fondness, there is no doubt that the pop culture icons from that time period had a powerful effect on me. And besides, the title was completely irresistible.

Band Fags (which gets its title from the name given to the kids in the band clique) starts in the fall of 1982. John "Jack" Paterno and Brad Dayton are Best Friends as boys can only be in junior high before discovering girls. Only thing is, although neither of them are quite aware of it yet, they're not going to discover girls, at least not in that sense. What follows is a cornucopia of 80s pop culture references (Tangina from Poltergeist was the first one of many, and the point at which I was sure I would like this book) and a coming-of-age story that would be at home amongst the best John Hughes movies.

Polito has a strong voice for Jack - which stands to reason since the character was based on him. He has taken some criticism for the amount of 80s pop culture references dropped in the novel, but when asked about his response is "When you're a teenager, you just KNOW those things. They are your world!" Which I agree with. Pop culture references still are my world. The narrative is strong and you really get to know Jack. By the end, even when he is being deliberately obtuse about his sexuality (and a lot of other things), you have a lot of empathy for him because you've been allowed to get to know him.

I really don't want this to be a review of the book per se. It's hard to distill this book down to a few paragraphs because the experience of reading it is really where it's at. But as a straight guy, I recognized that I was probably not the target audience for this book. When I asked Frank who the intended audience for the book was, he replied that it "was people our age (mid-to-late 30s) because I knew they would appreciate it. But I have found that younger people also enjoy it, because the 80s are 'in' right now and for them it's like a history lesson." And I would agree with this sentiment. Anyone who grew up in the 80s that paid attention to the minutiae of pop culture would enjoy it. You do not have to be gay to enjoy this book. I'm sure that a lot of gay men can see themselves in Jack (or Brad for that matter), but oddly enough, so can I.

For me, the book speaks to a larger issue, perhaps not entirely intended. What I found myself plugging into more than anything else was the friendship between Jack and Brad. It is, as I said, the type of Best Friendship that really can only be experienced in that pure form when one is young. I think a large majority of men had a version of this kind of friendship during their teenage years. It is also something that most men talk themselves out of wanting or needing once they hit adulthood, get married, have children, etc., much to their detriment. I think a lot of that has to do with a baseline fear-of-being-perceived-gay (which I think is different from homophobia) that many straight men feel, whether they will admit to it or not. I've certainly been guilty of it. As I've mentioned before in these pages, there was as time in my life that I was very hesitant to admit my Madonna fandom to anyone as it was tantamount to hanging a sign around my neck saying "I'm gay!" I'm ashamed of that behavior now, as it's a slap in the face to all the good friends of mine who are gay.

But it's more than that. I think there's also a fear of intimacy that many men are unable to overcome. And that's really too bad. I realize that men in general are not programmed for that, but I think there is a lot to be gained for overcoming all that evolutionary programming. As Paul Monette wrote in 1993: Heterosexual men have told me for years that, since college, they have no male friends to talk with. The emotional isolation caused by fear of intimacy is indifferent to sexual orientation.

And it is because the emotional isolation caused by fear of intimacy is indifferent to sexual orientation is why Band Fags transcends sexual orientation. Yes, it is a book about growing up gay, but it is also a book about growing up male. I don't think for one single minute that the instant we turn 22 or get married or have children means that we immediately stop having a need for the kind of Best Friendship we experienced as teenagers. Granted, it will not be the same. For one thing, you can't go back and it will be filtered through the prism of marriages/significant others/kids and it will never be the simple joy that it was then. But it is there, just in a different form. Someone once told me that finding friends like that is a numbers game - the more you try, the more likely you are to succeed. That used to piss me off, but I think I was angry because I knew it was true. Since then, following that advice has reaped me some great benefits.

So that's what I got out of Band Fags. It may not what Polito intended and no one else may get that either, but that's the beauty of art. It can mean anything to anyone. So do yourself a favor and read it.


xolondon said...

I want to read this - I knew band and drama fags, though yearbook and newspaper kids did not get that tag.

I don't really have one best friend, but I have a range of them and maybe that is what you are getting at. I like an arrotment pack!

I think straight guys and gay guys should be friends because there is a different dynamic that is beneficial to both sides.

Dan said...

That is what I'm getting at, actually. I think it's impossible to attain that Best Friendship in pure form as an adult, but you can certainly sample it in a lot of different people.

Different friends for different parts of your life. And besides, it's just wrong to put that kind of pressure on any one person.