Love that dare not be happy

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
Why so many sad endings in novels with gay characters, asks David Self

Desire Lines By Jack Gantos Red Fox pound;4.99

My Heartbeat By Garret Freymann-Weyr Young Picador pound;9.99

The Shell House By Linda Newbery Red Fox pound;5.99

Think Catcher in the Rye meets The Crucible and you have the essence of Desire Lines. Its narrator, Walker, is the Holden Caulfield character, an American small-town teenage loner. He is cute, idealistic and disaffected with school. In trouble for copying work, he is given the job of cleaning and feeding animals in the biology lab - which he releases back into the wild. His serious problems begin when, accidentally and unnoticed, he observes two classmates expressing their lesbian love.

At the same time, a temporary evangelical church is set up near the school and a 16-year-old preacher boy picks on Walker, accusing him of being gay while trying to enlist his help in denouncing "sinners" in the school. When his schoolmates pick up on the accusations, Walker joins a gang of three bullies to "improve" his image.

Then, exactly as The Crucible's inhabitants of Salem denounce their neighbours as witches to prove their own innocence, he betrays the two girls to his new "friends", with fatal results.

Baldly summarised, it sounds melodramatic. Far from it. It is moving and memorable. The lesbian encounter is not salacious; the "public hell" created by the young representative of the American Christian Right is horribly credible, and the peer pressure of Walker's classmates all too familiar. Most of all, it is the analysis of Walker's own self-doubt, anxiety and pain that makes this such a raw if depressing novel.

Garret Freymann-Weyr's central characters are similarly worried by gayness.

They are, however, much "nicer" people: the middle-class children of ambitious New Yorkers who haven't time for their offspring because they are preoccupied with earning enough money to send them to private schools.

Fourteen-year-old Ellen hero-worships her elder brother, maths genius and track star Link, and has a crush on his best friend, James. All is well until school gossip leads Ellen to ask if Link and James are a couple.

Her question provokes a split between Link and James, much emotional self-denial and parental conflict and the development of a reciprocated relationship between herself and James. Link, meanwhile, refuses to consider his sexuality because subconsciously he knows his father could not accept his gayness. Eventually they go their individual ways. Despite a clumsy section in which Ellen tries to educate herself (and the reader) into an understanding of homosexuality, the author does usefully show that there are degrees of homosexuality but her overriding message is that the revelation of one's own or one's relatives' orientation is a painful and messy process.

Both books are filmic, laconic - and American imports. This latter point will not alienate the British reader but it begs the question why British publishers often funk publishing books on teenage homosexuality with the excuse that they can't be re-sold to the States.

The good news is that a British novel dealing with this subject matter, Linda Newbery's compelling The Shell House, has just been re-issued in paperback. In contrast to the American titles, it is elegiac, even literary. But like them, the message it gives off is that being gay or being perceived as gay is usually a disaster. Yes, all three books may help straight readers towards a greater empathy, but in not one is the gay reader offered the example of a happy, on-going same-sex relationship.

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