Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Year of Ice by Brian Malloy

Kevin Doyle is a high school senior: Class of 1978. He's hot -- or "foxy," as one said in that era -- and has no trouble attracting girls. The problem is, this kid from a working class Irish Catholic family is yearning for Jon, a classmate with thick eyelashes and a great physique. This has to be kept secret, of course. As far as he knows, the only other gay man in the world is Mr. Hayes, a "faggy" teacher everyone scorns. So Kevin has to be content with his fantasies and a stolen copy of Playgirl magazine.

As the story opens, Kevin is facing the first anniversary of his mother's death in a single-vehicle accident. His only two surviving family members are his father, who slaves away in a Ford Motor plant and dodges the phalanx of lonely Catholic widows who flock to his door, and his perpetually angry, fiercely devout Aunt Nora. His father and Nora are locked in a furious battle, and in the process, ugly secrets are churned up.

Aside from his sexual orientation, Kevin is an "average" guy, a "C" student intent on running with the "cool" kids and maintaining his position as an "alpha" in the pack at high school. Author Brian Malloy does a good job at capturing the complexity under the surface of his life, in a way that's both sad and -- at times -- hilarious. It's also an unvarnished story of adolescence, with the protagonist caught up in alcohol and other drug use and yearning to fornicate.

So I was surprised that I found Kevin so difficult to like and that I didn't love this novel more than I did. I relished his dark sense of humor, and it was impossible not to sympathize with his struggles. I liked the fact that the painful process of coming out as a gay man was never resolved because life is like that -- it's messy, and none of us have all the loose ends neatly wrapped up by the time we're eighteen. I also liked the fact that the author was brave enough to let Kevin be shallow, vindictive, and mean at times. A flawed and funny character, and a gay coming of age story set in a "typical" Midwestern community -- how could I not fall in love with this book? The trouble was, I was looking for those moments that made me love this character, the glimpses of the hidden depths in his nature. Maybe it they were there, but they didn't resonate with me. Honestly, I never liked Kevin. And some of the secondary characters, including his affectionate but relentlessly belligerent aunt, struck me as rather one-note.

However, there was a lot I liked about this book, and I did enjoy it, even if it didn't click with me the way I expected it to. This author does a great job of capturing the peculiar angst of adolescence, with family troubles and personal differences swelling like a wave and the illusive sense of being center stage all the time, with people watching and judging you. For example, there was one painful scene in which Kevin was making out with his girlfriend and had the chance to touch her breasts -- an experience that other guys talked about with reverential awe but just made him recoil in disgust. When he got to school Monday, he was afraid she'd told everyone what had happened:
I drive myself to school on Monday, after spending the day before locked in the spare room. Rick Foley called, and Tommy called, but I had Aunt Nora take messages. I asked her: Did they sound funny to you? Funny how, she wanted to know. Funny like there's a rumor going around that I don't like boobs ... I stop the Dart and look at the school. There are gangs of kids hanging out in front of Northeast, but none of them are carrying signs that say I'm a big faggot. When I walk down the hallway, people are screaming and laughing and yakking. I try to catch what they're talking about, but its hard to make out one conversation from another. So far I haven't heard my name though. I hear "Fag" a lot, but that's just how people talk. Boys are fags, girls are sluts. It's all about sex; I'm beginning to think that everything is.
This was an edgy and honest story about growing up and about a kid who's never found his niche -- at least not yet. Many fans of YA lit will enjoy this novel. And as an aside, I had fun with the references to growing up in the '70s, including Shaun Cassidy, the Bee Gees, and the Osmonds and snippets of news like the Jonestown tragedy. It definitely brought back memories. :-)

Read More Reviews: Mostly Fiction; A Guy's Moleskine Notebook

Rating: 3

5- Cherished Favorite4 - Keep in My Library3 - Good Read2 - Meh1 - Definitely Not
For Me

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