*Watch for my full book review of Golden Boy on Burlesque Press this coming Monday!*
The day after I finished reading Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin, Paul and I went to a burlesque show hosted by Ben DeLaCreme, one of the stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season Six.
Ben trotted around on stage in sparkly outfits, wigs, and six-inch platform shoes, and I was delighted. I understand drag queens: they are gay men who have adopted the personas of fabulous, female divas, and they’re mainstream enough these days to have had six seasons of reality television created all about them.
What I didn’t understand quite so well was Ben’s helper in the performance, Lou Henry Hoover. Lou was small and spry with a short crew cut, a glittery mustache, and a masculine neck tattoo. He came onto the stage in a silver unitard, showing off a rather large bulge in the crotch area, and yet, with his narrow shoulders and delicate features, I was pretty sure Lou was female.
“I want Lou to do a striptease,” Paul whispered to me. “So I can see what exactly is going on.”
“Yeah, me too.” I was pretty sure Lou was female and wearing a chest-flattening sports bra, but I wanted confirmation.
For the next hour, Paul and I were supposed to be enjoying a display of pretty girls removing their elaborate costumes in sexy dance, and yet we found that we could not take our eyes off of Ben DeLaCreme, Lou Henry, and a transvestite with Divine-inspired make-up, who we referred to as “the scary one.”
“I feel bad,” Paul said. “I keep trying to find all the feminine features of Lou and all the masculine features of Ben.”
“It’s like your brain is trying to understand what category they belong in.” I knew because my brain was doing the same thing.
And then I thought of Golden Boy, and suddenly I understood why it is such an important book.
Golden Boy is an impressive debut novel. Written by a twenty-five-year-old Brit (oh, how I’m jealous!), the prose exudes the confidence of a seasoned writer and deals with the ballsy topic (no pun intended) of a boy who is intersex.
In case you don’t know (I didn’t before reading the book), “intersex” refers to people born with genetic and/or physical characteristics that make it impossible for them to be distinctly categorized as male or female. In Golden Boy, the main character, sixteen-year-old Max Walker, identifies as a boy, but he has both male and female genitalia. Unlike many parents of hermaphrodite children, his parents did not opt for surgery at infancy to turn him fully into one sex or the other.
The novel, told from the first-person perspectives of Max, his girlfriend, his mother, his younger brother, and his doctor is an emotional account of Max’s struggle to understand himself and his body.
Golden Boy was a 2014 recipient of the Alex Award, which is given to adult books that have special appeal for kids ages twelve to eighteen. And yet, I wonder why Golden Boy is categorized as an adult book and not Young Adult. Max’s voice, his relationship with his girlfriend, and his angsty inner monologues really seem like YA material. Was the book labeled adult because of the subject matter, or because of the sections of adult narrative? If Tarttelin had written solely from Max’s perspective, would the novel have been labeled YA? Or was it placed in the adult section because of it’s one disturbing sex scene, or perhaps because of the overall theme of sexuality?
I’m curious to know because I am often writing stories and novels about teenagers and wondering if they fall into the adult or YA category. If they are told from a teenager’s perspective, are they automatically YA? If they include sex scenes, are they automatically adult?
The AWP conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is coming up next week, and as usual there are several panels that deal with the question of what, exactly, constitutes YA literature. One I might attend is called “How Far Do You Go: Sex in YA Fiction.” It seems I’m not the only one confused about what fits into the category.
Maybe, like Max, Golden Boy is both genres – or neither. It can’t be categorized.
Unfortunately, this could mean it won’t be read by enough people because it doesn’t clearly fall into a category. That’s why agents and publishers like clear-cut categories. They help to market books.
But come to think of it, we all like things that clearly belong in one category or another. Ambiguity makes us uncomfortable.
While reading Golden Boy, I found myself wondering why Max didn’t just go along with the doctors’ recommendations to do all the necessary surgeries to make him “totally boy.” Wouldn’t that make things so much easier for him and his relationship with his girlfriend?
And yet, the point Tarttelin is trying to make is that Max shouldn’t have to alter his body just because he doesn’t fit into society’s mold. Why should Max have to go through invasive surgeries (that would render him infertile), hormone treatments, and prosthetics (including a pair of fake testicles)? Why can’t Max just be who he is, in the body he was born with?
The reason, according to the doctors, is because if he doesn’t, society won’t know what to do with him. Just look at me and Paul. We like to think of ourselves as relatively open-minded, accepting people, and yet there we were at the burlesque show, desperate to place Lou into a category. We couldn’t accept his/her ambiguity. We wanted, in fact, for Lou to strip down and show us, once and for all, whether he was a boy or girl. It didn’t occur to us that he could be both, or neither.
Towards the end of the show, Ben DeLaCreme announced that Lou was going to come out and do a striptease. “Yay, just what we wanted,” Paul and I said.
Lou danced onto the stage in trousers and suspenders, lip-syncing to a crazy, old Bo Carter song with the lyrics “let me put my banana in your fruit basket.” When Lou took off his clothes, he was wearing a flesh-colored body suit underneath with a fig leaf painted on the crotch. The joke was that we’d never know for sure.
And the point of Golden Boy is that it shouldn’t matter what Lou or Max have between their legs. Well, no, not exactly. It does matter. Sex and sexuality matter greatly. What shouldn’t matter is the category. Where we make the mistake is in insisting that everyone belongs in one group or the other.
And we make this mistake with books, too. After all, don’t teenagers read “adult” books, and adults read books meant for teens? Does it make sense to keep sex out of YA books when sexuality is such an important part of growing up? Sometimes a book doesn’t fall perfectly into a category. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading.
No matter what your age, Golden Boy is definitely worth reading, and Lou Henry Hoover is definitely worth watching. In fact, Tarttelin’s book is a plea to society: let Max be Max and let Lou be Lou. Stop trying to strip them down, examine them, and force them into a category. It’s hard for us to understand sometimes, but we have to work on accepting people (and books!) and loving them for exactly who and what they are.