Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Family, Fiction, Friendship, Gay Lit, LGBT, Multiple POV, New York, Relationships, Richard Kramer

Review: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer

These-Things-Happen

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 53

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

These Things Happen opens with the main character, Wesley, and his best friend, Theo.  Both of these young men, teenagers in high school, are special as are, we will quickly learn, all of the characters in the book, in their own way.  Theo has been in a race for school class president and Wesley has been there, by his side, as campaign manager and whatever else Theo needs.  Things turn out well for the dynamic duo, at least until Theo’s acceptance speech, where some breaking news happens to tumble out of his mouth, in front of the whole school.  The repercussions are great, and they send Wesley on a quest to discover more about the people in his life. This quest and the questions he asks, the answers he seeks, will ultimately lead him to become more introspective, to learn more about himself than, perhaps, about anyone else.  Over the course of a few days, Wesley’s attempts to connect with his parents result in the start of what might be the most meaningful relationships of his life – but not with the people he originally intended.  Wesley’s story is one about friendship and family, about finding one’s  self and learning to look at life in new ways, to be open to possibilities, and to never assume to know more than we do, about ourselves or anyone else.  This is one of those strange books, like Catcher in the Rye, I’ll Get There It Better Be Worth the Trip, and Jumpstart the World, that belongs in the realm of adult contemporary fiction, even though its main character is a youth.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Perhaps my one concern with this book is its characterization.  The message that we are all special and unique, with our own personal, valid life stories, is well taken.  However, there is an overabundance of “fabulousness” to these characters – one which is pointed out in the book’s synopsis.  The main character Wesley and his best friend Theo are both brilliant, and let each other know it all the time.  Wesley’s father and his partner both think the other is smart, funny, amazing.  Wesley thinks the same of both of them.  Wesley’s mom is talented and intelligent, as is her boyfriend.  Everyone in the story, it seems, is super clever and wonderful, except in their own eyes.  This says a lot about how we see others versus how we see ourselves, but the “wow” factor of each character was so overemphasized that it, to me, made nobody seem very special at all.  That being said, these characters certainly are people, and different ones at that.  They are special in their own ways – George, in particular.  Character is done best, I think, when it is demonstrated through the various relationships.  The strained relationship between Wesley and his father, for instance, or the budding relationship between Wesley and George.  The way we see Wesley’s mom, behind closed doors, and the way she comes across in public.  Viewing the characters in their different situations adds depth to them and allows us to understand each of them a bit better, even if they haven’t quite figured out themselves or each other just yet.

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

A carry-over issue I have from characterization has to do with narrative voice(s) in the book.  Each chapter is narrated from the perspective of one of the characters, which means our relationship to the narrator changes with each chapter, too.  In one chapter, we are with Wesley – seeing things from his point of view.  In the next, we are with Theo, or George, or Ben.  One would expect, then, a very different voice from chapter to chapter but, unfortunately, the language and style are almost identical, no matter which perspective we are witnessing in any given chapter.  Wesley is a great character and, with George, probably the best drawn in the book – I just wish he had been more of a stand-out by being completely different from any of the other characters in the story.  Mood and tone do shift, depending on the situation that the narrating characters are in at that point in the story, and the language and style in general are fluid, engaging, and appropriate to the overall tone and level of the story.  I found the humor to be current and funny, not necessarily an easy task, and while I am not usually a fan of multiple narrative perspectives, it definitely works for this book, because the essence of the book is not just Wesley’s story, but all stories. 

 Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer is a modern take on a modern topic.  Thankfully, gay and lesbian fiction is on the rise, both in the adult contemporary and the young adult spheres.  There is still a lot of work to be done, but Kramer’s new book happily adds to the genre, and in an innovative way.  These Things Happen looks at a variety of homosexual (and general life) issues through the eyes of a heterosexual teenaged boy.  What is so fascinating is the fact that three of the main characters are gay, and this story is certainly about their lives, but it is also about the main character,  Wesley,  and how he begins to come into his own, to understand himself – maybe.  Told from the perspective of many of its characters, what the reader learns from each vantage point is that no one is really sure of him or herself – we think we know who we are, but we constantly doubt it.  Do others see us as we really are, or as we pretend to be?  Can others, those closest to us, know more about us than we know about ourselves?  How can listening to and learning about our friends, our parents, our children, give us deeper insight into who we are?  This book asks a lot of questions and it answers few of them, but that’s the point – the discovery is ours to make.  I can easily imagine These Things Happen becoming an indie/cult classic, someday.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 13+
Interest: Family, Alternative/Modern Families, Friendship, Intergenerational Relationships, LGBT Issues, New York City, Bullying/Violence, Prejudice/Bigotry, Self-discovery.

Notable Quotes:

“I like when someone doesn’t know an answer right off, where what they say first is just a start, that can wind up anywhere. Where answers don’t end things.” (18)

“Sometimes I think I’m like forty different people, sometimes not quite one.” (23)

“If I’m gay, which I am, it’s not because my dad was distant. He wasn’t. And besides, that’s just psychology.” (99)

“He understands tonight, as he might not have before, that to accept what someone wants to give you is, in its way, a kind of bravery.” (215)

“Lying is most interesting as an action when you don’t actually have the need to lie . . . Because it allows you to find out what truth, personally, is for you.  Because there have to be more categories, quite frankly, than truth or untruth.” (234)

“It is possible to have an experience and only find out later what it means.” (235)

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Review: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer – As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!)

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer – Shooting Stars Mag

Blog Tour: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer – Dreaming In Books

Standard
AIDS, Edmund White, Friendship, Gay Lit, GLBT, Green Carnation Prize, New York, Sexuality

Review: Jack Holmes and His Friend by Edmund White (The Green Carnation Prize)

12047756

This is Book #1 for our Green Carnation Prize reading project.  For more information on the project and on the Green Carnation Prize itself, please visit This Post.

About the Book:

Format: Hardcover

Published: January 1st, 2012

Publisher: Bloomsbury UK

Description:

“Jack Holmes and Will Wright arrive in New York in the calm before the storm of the 1960s. Coworkers at a cultural journal, they soon become good friends. Jack even introduces Will to the woman he will marry. But their friendship is complicated: Jack is also in love with Will. Troubled by his subversive longings, Jack sees a psychiatrist and dates a few women, while also pursuing short-lived liaisons with other men. But in the two decades of their friendship, from the first stirrings of gay liberation through the catastrophe of AIDS, Jack remains devoted to Will. And as Will embraces his heterosexual sensuality, nearly destroying his marriage, the two men share a newfound libertinism in a city that is itself embracing its freedom.

Moving among beautifully delineated characters in a variety of social milieus, Edmund White brings narrative daring and an exquisite sense of life’s submerged drama to this masterful exploration of friendship, sexuality, and sensibility during a watershed moment in history.”

-From Goodreads.com.

My Thoughts:

Reading Jack Holmes and His Friend is, for me, like visiting an old friend who I haven’t seen in a while.  In years gone-by, I have read and enjoyed other White novels, including A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty.  As with any reunion, though, one notices certain differences.  For instance, the two books read previously are both semi-autobiographical (or, as I would prefer to call them, creative non-fiction).  This one, though, is a bit more difficult to figure out.  The primary character, Jack, is a gay man with aversions to homosexuality.  I actually saw quite a bit of myself in him (at first – but only at first!), which was fun, as I usually do not identify at all with fictional gay characters.

Jack has a difficult time coming to terms with is sexuality, though he does eventually accept himself, after attempting, through physical action, therapy, and other methods to “fix” himself and become heterosexual.  He also struggles his entire life with being in love with the man (Will) who becomes his best friend.  Some readers have found this relationship cliché, but I would argue that 1) something is not cliché simply because it happens often in real life and 2) White handles this yearning, in Jack, with a sense of realism that is not often found in these types of situations—it does not feel like a “puppyish” type of unrequited love, as might be found in YA books.

Readers should also be prepared for quite a bit of masterfully crafted erotic segments, both heterosexual and homosexual.  White has always portrayed sexuality and sexual situations in a naked (no pun intended) uninhibited way, and that certainly still holds true.  Readers who are expecting a purely “gay” tale, though, will be in for a surprise, as the heterosexual escapades seem, to me, just as accurately and intimately detailed as the homosexual ones.

What I find most appealing about the story, though, is its temporal reach.  The novel spans decades and it is fascinating to watch how the friendship between Jack & Will changes over time (as well as how they themselves change), but also to witness the important historical events and movements that take place, particularly the AIDS epidemic and how it impacted the gay community of New York.  I did find Jack’s “growth” a bit contrived and forced – I will leave the impetus for that growth out of this review, so readers can discover and evaluate it for themselves; but, I for one would have liked to see that development come from a “purer” place (if that can be said to exist).

Some of the difficulty of this book is in its structure.  While the prose is beautiful, the back-and-forth narration, from Jack’s perspective (but in third-person), to Will’s perspective, and then reversed again, is a bit odd and distracting.  I understand that White wanted the reader to relate closely to both the gay and straight characters, to experience their world through the eyes of both friends, but I wonder if a simpler, consistent third-person narrator might have been more effective in serving this purpose.

Would I recommend this book?  I would, indeed.  Is it worthy of The Green Carnation Prize?  Well, fortunately, that is not for me to decide!  I do see how and why this book made its way onto the short list.  White might be breaking-ground with his look at adult male relationships, here.  Can a gay man and a straight man be best friends?  Absolutely.  But if that gay man happens to be in love (obsessed) with his friend?  Complications!  Those situations and complications do happen, though, and they have not yet been extensively explored in fiction.  Although its structure and style might leave a bit to be desired, Jack Holmes and His Friend absolutely has a place on the shelf and adds a certain something to the canon of gay literature.  It is also an interesting read for those interested in cultural studies (particularly 1960s/70s New York City), the nature of friendship, and sexuality.

 cropped-2012draft2banner

Up Next in Our Series on the Green Carnation Prize Short-List:

December 4th: Scenes from Early Life – Philip Hensher (Ana of Things Mean A Lot)

December 5th: A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (Mat of MatLee Reviews)

December 6th: Carry the One by Carol Anshaw (Cass of Bonjour Cass!)

December 7thMoffie by Andrew Carl Van Der Merwe (No review scheduled – please comment if you would like to read/review this book for our project!)

December 10th: Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Before he Stole Me Ma by Kerry Hudson (Jodie of Book Gazing)

Standard