I read this book back in August, just as we began our big move, and I’m so excited to finally get the chance to talk it up to you guys.
But first, a story to illustrate just why this book is so spot-on and so important. I had only read one other David Levithan novel before (the sublime Lover’s Dictionary). I had always intended to read more, but never got around to it. So when I stumbled on him signing advanced copies of his latest book at BEA this year, you would think I jumped at the opportunity. You’d be wrong. I hesitated. Because I saw the poster standing next to him, with the book’s jacket image and title. And I actually thought to
myself “I can’t walk around with a book about two boys kissing–people will think I’m nuts!” I am not proud at all that this thought occurred to me–a man who is not only gay but gay married, a man who endured perhaps more than his fair share of bullying in junior high and came out the other side. Luckily, as soon as the thought was born I realized how silly it was. So I got on line, and while Mr. Levithan signed an advanced copy for me I told him what a great fan of Lover’s Dictionary I am. He was very polite and sweet.
A few days later, I picked up Two Boys Kissing on my way out the door to begin my subway ride to work. As I waited for the train, then as I sat on the train going downtown, I felt self conscious. I felt like people could see what I was reading and were staring at me. Nevertheless, I was determined not to let these inexplicable fears of mine interfere with my reading. By the time I went home that day, I was falling in love with the book itself, which greatly helped ease my nerves. As I read, and as the message (there’s nothing wrong with two boys kissing) sank in, I began to feel empowered whenever I had the book in my hands. It was like a sign: this is who I am. Deal with it. At the same time, I realized that all the stares I had felt on the first day were completely in my own head. I felt even more ashamed.
Getting to the novel itself, it follows the interlocking stories of seven gay teens living in the present day. Craig and Harry are exes, but they’ve decided to go for the world’s record for longest kiss. Their quest frames the novel. Peter and Neil are a couple, trying to figure out what their deep feelings for each other mean for the uncertain future that graduation and adulthood will inevitably bring. Avery and Ryan have just met and are going on their first official date, going through all the awkwardness and excitement and hope of getting to know someone for the first time. Cooper has no one; he trolls hook-up sites for cheap thrills that he never allows to come to anything, and he hates himself for every minute of it. When his parents catch him at this, he runs away from home and feels lost, abandoned, and thoroughly alone.
This sounds strange, but a ghostly cluster of gay men who died of AIDS form a Greek chorus of sorts to narrate the stories and tie them together. Like I said, it sounds strange, but Levithan pulls it off like a master. The chorus is ultimately what gives Two Boys Kissing its resonance. It honors the troubled history of LGBT people, is thankful for how far we have come, saddened by how much hate and sadness still exists, and remains hopeful for the future represented by these gay teens, who are revolutionizing the world simply by having the courage to be themselves.
I would go so far as to say that Two Boys Kissing is not just a good book, it’s an important one. It captures the struggle and the history of the LGBT past and melds it with the present and the future–all without feeling preachy or like a history lesson. As a gay man who grew up in the pre-Ellen, pre-Will & Grace, pre-It Gets Better world, it hits home in a way I cannot adequately express. But you can see it reflected in my initial fear of this book–because that is exactly what it was that I felt when I almost didn’t get in line at BEA. It was that old fear that to be gay is to need to hide, to go unnoticed, rearing its ugly head. The boldness of this book is that the “revolutionary” act at its center is actually almost mundane: a kiss. If it provokes a response, it is only because the people doing the kissing are the same gender. Hopefully, someday that won’t seem so bold.
For more LGBT books, check out my LGBT book recommendations page.