June 30, 2005

There's Only One Thing On Their Minds: 'It'

It's all about Id...

One of the ways I know for sure that I'll never become a book reviewer as a day job is that sometimes I approach a book with preconceived notions. Very preconceived notions, in this case. When I reviewed Melvin Burgess' Doing It, the title alone made me feel like I'd be locked in a boy's locker room with filthy socks, sweaty jerseys and the overpowering stench of too much Brut (And how much is too much? Any!). The word "It" leered out at me aggressively, bespeaking rampant hormonal surgings, an absence of emotional maturity, and all the threatening sexuality of the jerks from my high school days, and all the mean boys who didn't notice me. I was prepared, quite plainly, to despise this book.

And not merely because it was an explicitly sexualized story. No, we've had sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in YA literature for a good while now, but the difference here is that it has primarily been in the service of teen aged girls, thus the sex has mostly been couched in terms of (agonizing) relationships. Calling sex 'It' seems to slash at the idea of relationships, cutting all softness away and leaving only the jutting knife of Id to drive the story. I was fairly sure that 'It' was going to be all Melvin Burgess' nocturnal emissions splattered in ink. And I wasn't far off. However, it turns out that this book is more than that. The meaning of choice and the idea that love in itself has intrinsic value took this book from being essentially a dirty joke to being a positive teen read.

If one can leave aside the male posturing and general low humor (which is eye-rollingly familiar locker room talk), one sees the picture of three boys and their female classmates who are emerging people - humans under construction. They, like all of us, struggle with insecurities, bewilderment and old rage; they plot their moves and they fantasize about their dreams. One boy believes that he is golden, and that nothing will ever happen to him; when his parents' relationship founders, he is nearly lost, pursuing gratification that he believes to be the answer to all that they have lost. Another of the three friends has all his dreams come true, and finds himself in a sexual fantasy turned nightmare. Fear and longing tangle humorously in the third storyline, as the third protagonist fears that he is dying of some kind of penile cancer. The boys struggle, for the most part silently, locked into their masculine roles, fearing and suffocating alone, but Burgess allows some surprising trust and connections between the boys. These bring out the humanity in these characters, even as he underscores the essential faults of some personality types.

This is not to say that there aren't clich├ęs. There are far too many unsympathetic adults in this world; the parents are either remarkably selfish or remarkably ineffectual and absent. The female archetypes are arranged in new incarnations; there is the Frigid Girl, the Wild Nymphomaniac; the Grateful, Easy Fat Girl who is not only unfortunately jolly, but who doesn't mind doing all the work as well. This book, however, is less about the women in the relationships with our three stalwarts than the boys and their reactions to their environment. If Burgess leaves the women with fewer dimensions, he at least acknowledges that males can also find themselves in trouble, and that the word "no" should have the same power, if only it can be wielded.

This was a solid look at male sexuality from a British male point of view. Without judging the characters or their actions, Burgess somehow manages to avoid having his characters become hormone-drunken apes, and infuses them with a rough tenderness that makes the time of life that the book celebrates - amusing, horrible, tragic and exhilarating adolescence - and makes it breathe.

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