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Book Review: Two Boys Kissing

By (September 1, 2013) No Comment

Two Boys Kissingtwo boys kissing

By David Levithan

Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

Novelist David Levithan has twice won the Lambda Literary Award, first for his 2003 debut Boy Meets Boy and then for 2006’s The Full Spectrum. He also co-wrote the 2010 novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson with John Green, author of the bestselling The Fault in Our Stars and one-half of a YouTube vlogging team so phenomenally popular that if they uploaded a video instructing their 4 million young fans to pay for their copies of The Fault in Our Stars using their grandparents’ scooped-out eyeballs, bookstores all over the world would be rump-deep in retinas by noon.

There’s a tinny, facile, anything-I-do-will-be-good-enough quality to Green’s work, and to the chapters of Will Grayson, Will Grayson that he wrote, so a reader encountering Levithan for the first time might have grounds to be wary. But with the author’s latest book, Two Boys Kissing, there’s no reason to worry. To put it mildly, there’s nothing smug about this book.

The two boys in question might be Craig Cole and Harry Ramirez, high school students in the small town of Kindling, who are intent on entering the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest recorded gay-boy kiss. Or the boys might be Tariq Johnson, who has to travel two hours from his own small town just to dance at a gay club, and Cooper Riggs, who bleakly wanders around cyberspace “looking for the surprise of something genuine.”

Or they might be year-long boyfriends Neil and Peter, who live within walking distance of each other, fit each other like an old married couple, and are largely accepted by each other’s family. When the story opens and we find Neil walking to Peter’s house, the book’s narration swoops in:

He has no idea how beautiful he is as he walks up that path and rings the doorbell. He has no idea how beautiful the ordinary becomes once it disappears.

But as complexly and refreshingly characterized as any of the boy-characters in Levithan’s novel are, they’re regularly overshadowed by that winsome, bittersweet narration. It turns out that Two Boys Kissing is narrated by an invisible chorus of the dead – specifically, of the many gay men who died of AIDS during the plague’s awe-inspiring first American outbreak. These men are forlornly omniscient; they remember with aching tenderness how alive they were in a very different gay world. The sheer cumulative power of the device often threatens to derail the book’s main plot-lines, to make silly high school shenanigans and heartaches seem puppyishly trivial. What weight can dancing boys with purple-dyed hair muster against powerhouse paragraphs like this one:

And there are some men, fewer and fewer, who fall to bed and think of us. In their dreams, we are still by their side. In their nightmares, we are still dying. In the blurriness of night, they reach for us. They say our names n their sleep. To us, this is the most meaningful, most heartbreaking sound we ever had the privilege and misfortune to know. We whisper their names back to them. And in their dreams, maybe they hear.

Two Boys Kissing is being marketed as a Young Adult title, and who knows what kind of seismic effect writing this strong and beautiful might have on bullied or questioning teens even in the slightly more tolerant 21st century. For those young men and women, the humor and honesty with which Levithan imbues his teen characters might very well be a revelation, and the author is to be commended for that.

But this is hugely, heartbreakingly a survivor’s book (every gay man over the age of 40 should read this book, but oh, some pages will be almost unbearable). Glowing all throughout it are sentiments no present-day teen, thank God, will understand. Those teen readers will patiently read through such sentiments in order to find out what happens to Neil and Peter and Craig and Harry, but what might strike them as a bit of a chore will reach directly into the heart’s of some of Levithan’s older readers and rip open wounds they thought had long since scarred over. Perfectly-toned longing will do that:

We always underestimated our own participation in magic. That is, we thought of magic as something that existed with or without us. But that’s not true. Things are not magical because they’ve been conjured for us by some outside force. They are magical because we create them, and then deem them so.