Friday, May 14, 2010

69. Sugarless by James Magruder

I found Sugarless on the new fiction shelf at my library and I'm not going to lie -- I checked it out partly because I like the cover. But I also thought it sounded interesting and a little different from the other books I've read in the my pick category, so I added it to my pile. 

Things look bad for Rick Lahrem, a high school sophomore in a cookie-cutter Chicago suburb in 1976. His mother's second husband is a licensed psychologist who eats like an ape, his stepsister is a stoner slut, and his father is engaged to a Southern belle. Rick's only solace is his growing collection of original Broadway-cast LPs, bought on the sly at Wax Trax. After he brings two girls in speech class to tears by reading a story aloud, Rick is coaxed onto the interscholastic forensics team to perform an eight-minute dramatic interpretation of The Boys in the Band, the controversial sixties play about homosexuality. Unexpectedly successful at this oddball event, Rick begins winnings tournaments and making friends with his teammates. Rick also discovers the joys of sex -- with a speech coach from a rival school -- just as his mother, reacting to a deteriorating home environment, makes an unnerving commitment to Christ. The newly confident Rick assumes this too shall pass -- until the combined forces of family, sex, and faith threaten to undo him at the state meet in Peoria.

Summary taken from the Google Books overview of Sugarless. 

I usually copy down the book jacket summary before I return library books but sometimes I forget, as was the case with Sugarless. The above summary is pretty close to what I remember reading on the book jacket with one key difference: the book jacket did not mention that this story takes place in the 70s. Or if it did, I skipped right over that part. So I started reading, expecting the story to take place in present day and it took a couple of chapters to figure out the actual setting. To be honest, I probably wouldn't have checked the book out if I had known -- in general, I don't find the 70s that interesting. Some time periods appeal to me more than others, and the 70s decade just isn't one of them. But I'm really glad that I didn't know about the setting beforehand, because I really enjoyed this book. I wasn't sure if I would at first but I found myself hesitant to put it down, and ended up finishing it in one night.

There is just something about coming of age stories. They just get me right there (imagine me pointing to my heart). And this is a fantastic one. I genuinely loved the arc of Rick's interpretation of the scene from The Boys in the Band; it was pretty effing incredible how his experiences and his performance of the scene were linked and over the course of the story, his understanding of both the material and his own sexuality evolved. This is Magruder's first novel, and you can't tell at all while reading; he's a skillful author and I'm interesting in hearing more of what he has to say.

I don't want to get too into gender stereotypes here, but I don't think many girl coming of age stories are physically graphic like boys' stories are. Or maybe they're physically graphic in other ways? Anyway, there were times when I felt a little squeamish because, well, boys are gross. They talk about masturbation and semen and all kinds of things that girls really aren't up-front about. Other than that somewhat unexpected aspect of the novel, I truly loved this one.

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