“Hell is not hot. Hell, when I visit, is a cold, barren plain where mistakes are permanent and mothers and lovers go missing.” Rick Lahrem
In the pursuit of our identity as LBGT folks, most of us, depending on our age, had precious few resources at our fingertips to guide us in our jouney of self-discovery. For me, and earlier generations, there weren't many books or other resources. We truly had to "go it alone."
I am sure we all can tell the story of when and how we became aware of our differences, and likewise, we can tell the story of how much of a challenge it was for us to even conceive of “coming out” let alone doing it.
Today, whether you are an adult or adolescent, there are coming out books galore,and among these are those that are categorized as “coming of age” novels or bildungsromans. It is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to one of the very best I've even encountered, the super first novel by James Magruder, called Sugarless (Terrace Books, 2009).
Magruder tells the story of a young 15 year old named Rick Lahrem (rhymes with Harem), who, as the story opens, lives with his mother stepfather and stepsister Carla in a picture perfect suburb of Chicago. It is a “quirky” family, but one that I’m sure you can all identify with.
His step father Carl is an apelike licensed psychologist who occupies much of his leisure time in his “booger chair while making Rick life miserable. His sister Carla is a sexed up “burnout with low-slung torpedo tits” who can do no wrong, and his mother Marie, lost in her everyday household world, becomes transformed through the love of Jesus. This conversion is a significant component in the drama that unfolds.
Then there is Rick, who is feeling the surges of his sexual awakening, and is decidedly different. As he so aptly puts it, “Different is the kiss of death in high school”. However, for Rick, having the inclination or willingness to live his difference catapults him into an adventure that not only sets the stage for the rest of his life, but offers him that glorious moment when he understands just who and what he is.
One of Rick’s differences is his absolute love for Broadway musicals. Although he has never been to one, he got bitten by the bug while watching the Tony Awards (this is so familiar to me!). Whenever he can, he takes the opportunity to go to his favorite record store and carefully select his next “friend”. The process simultaneously excites and overwhelms him, as he is especially careful not to let anyone know he is indulging himself in this way. God forbid, he gives away the fact that he is a “show fag.”
Rich is a sophomore in high school, and one of the graduation requirements is to pass two quarters of Oral Communication. The adventure I spoke of begins after Rich reads a touching story in speech class and is summoned to the school’s performing arts office to speak with the instructor, Mr. Wegner. Wegner, and his student assistant Miss Schuette recognize his talent, and suggest that he join the competitive speech team, and in particular, participate in the Dramatic Interpretation category. To this end, he is given a scene from Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band! And this, dear reader, is where the fun really begins.
The experience of Rick embracing this assignment in preparation for competition is not only a laugh riot, but this 8 minute exercise becomes the path to his enlightenment. Now, in order to for this to happen, the author adds a wonderful, yet controversial element to the story.
On one of his excursions to purchase yet another cast album, Rick meets Ned Bolger. Ned is a teacher from another school, but more significantly, he was one of the judges for Rick’s first completion. He not only believes in Rich, he excites him. To say that he seduces Rick would clearly bypass the reality of Rick’s own desire. Rick is ready, and what better choice than his being with someone who not only shares his love of musicals, but “inspires” him to do his very best.
From this point toward the transformational ending, James Magruder captures our attention every step of the way. Although this may not be our particular story, it is still ours to relate to. The writing is crisp and the images the author captures are very real. In other words, not one moment is wasted. You may find yourself torn at times as to the propriety of Rick’s relationship with Carl, but oddly enough, it is so matter of fact, that it works without offending.
Not only will you laugh a lot, but I bet you’ll get a few lumps in the throat along the way. The characters are wonderfully drawn, and the pacing of the book obliges you to read until you find out just what happens. I actually finished the book and began reading it again, not only finding it as good as I thought it was, but even better.
As I said, Sugarless is James Magruder first outing as a novelist, and he is currently working on his next. You owe it to yourself to pick this one up, so don't delay.
Until next time, Happy Reading!