Book Review: The Evolution of Ethan Poe
by Robin Reardon
Kensington Books, 2011
In Robin Reardon’s latest novel, 16-year-old Ethan Poe has a large number of complications in his backwoods rural-Maine life. He’s got a double-dose of outcast (the book constantly uses Malcolm Gladwell’s odious term “outlier”) in that he’s Goth and gay; his brother Kyle has a disturbing medical condition; his best friend Jorja is a frothing-at-the-mouth Christian fundamentalist; his school is waging a war over the proposed introduction of “Intelligent Design” into the curriculum (inspired by the similar case in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2004); and he’s falling in love with cool boy Max Modine even though he’s not always sure where Max stands on the subject of their relationship.
It’s a super-charged novel, in other words, from an expert: Reardon’s earlier novels, Thinking Straight, A Question of Manhood, and especially A Secret Edge were all very good teen-fiction evocations of the pressures young gay young people (and all other young outsiders) can face every day. Reardon keeps the plots and sub-plots moving nimbly, and she punctuates her narrators’ thoughts with more philosophical moments designed to make the reader think, as when Ethan reflects on his own status:
And then it crashes when I realize that people will always make me an outlier. Because I’ll always be gay. Maybe Mom didn’t freak, and maybe cool people like Guy and Max are gay, but I know what happens to us, and I know why Max doesn’t want to stick out. Maybe the Constitution prevents Mrs. Glasier from making me practice her religion, but if I go to town hall with Max and ask for a marriage license, not only will we get turned away, but also the government will do only so much to protect us from her.
The problem with The Evolution of Ethan Poe is that it was marketed by its publisher not as teen fiction but as adult fiction. In every Barnes & Noble in the country, it was stocked in the Fiction & Literature section, right alongside Ayn Rand and Anne Rice. Such marketing decisions are generally outside the purview of the authors themselves, but even so: this book is full of passages that typify the fairly stiff straining that adult novelists often display when trying to make their teen characters sound authentic:
I almost laugh at the expression on his face. OMG comes closer than What the fuck do I do now, but they’re both there, really. Needless to say, there’s no Whatcha up to, kid?
Putting that sort of thing in the Fiction & Literature section mis-serves both demographics: teens who might usefully identify with Ethan Poe are less likely to find him if he’s on the same shelf as Rilke and Racine, and adults who find The Evolution of Ethan Poe might buy it expecting adult prose, even if the subject is teen life. Such readers, coming to this book looking for something like Adam Berlin’s Belmondo Style or D. Travers Scott’s Execution, Texas or even Ben Neihart’s Hey, Joe might very well come away having had most of their worst thoughts about the current state of gay fiction confirmed.
However the placement decision was made, it was certainly motivated by the book’s sexually explicit content. Ethan and Max may be tentative and confused about the finer points of their relationship, but they sure as Hell know what they want from each other’s bodies – and they get it far more often than your average conflicted high school student in rural Maine (at least, one hopes):
He proceeds to play with mine, and before long we’ve both come again, and I’m feeling kind of sorry for straight guys. I mean, there can’t be a girl alive who would know how to get to a boy like another boy does.
(This carefree explicitness also attaches to the “Intelligent Design” debate, with one character asking, for instance, why men have nipples … “It’s so gay guys have another body part to play with” is the reply)
Smart young readers of contemporary gay fiction often complain of its tendency toward neutered prose and torturously inconsequential narrative structure, and to the extent that such complains are valid, they arise from titles like this one being marketed to adults (the last three new or forthcoming gay novels I received in the mail were pitched that way, even though all three of them would drastically disappoint any halfway demanding adult reader). Reardon is at her strongest when her tormented, idealistic young heroes are grappling with the contradictions of the adult world all around them, as Ethan’s frequent outcries attest:
So what am I supposed to do? I’m surrounded by some people who want me to believe that there’s no way God created everything just like it is, and others who want to convince me that the only way it could be! And if that’s not enough, there are people on both sides who think everyone should be just like them, and no one should be gay!’
That’s winningly heartfelt, and Reardon’s handling of her various plot-lines (especially the evolution-religion debate) is smooth and page-turningly interesting. There’s certainly an audience that would eat this book up eagerly. I hope it reaches them.