This is another guest review from Rob Bittner, who is doing his PhD on trans and two-spirited youth and youth culture in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. Thanks for sharing this, Rob.
NOTE: This review is written based on an unedited bound galley provided by Random House on request. Quotations in italics are from this unedited galley, and may change in the final edition.
Two Boys Kissing
If you are a teenager now, it is unlikely that you knew us well. We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, the author of the book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation. You know some of our songs.
Two Boys Kissing: a simple title for a novel that is anything but. I came to this novel eager to see what David Levithan had in store, and was not disappointed. His writing is still poetic, his characters so filled with brittle humanity that it was difficult for me to put the book down. The cover itself has provoked much discussion, but it fits the plot like a glove, and I have to admit that I was delighted to see it released earlier this year.
Two Boys tells the stories of a number of young men, each separate, but revolving (and evolving) and ultimately connecting in surprising ways by the final pages. We are first introduced to Neil Kim, who is about to have a movie date with his boyfriend, Peter. We are then shown a glimpse into the worlds of Tariq Johnson, finally able to dance without judgment, surrounded by others like him; Cooper Riggs, who spends most of his time on the web, chatting with anonymous men for kicks, but still feeling that something is missing; and Ryan and Avery (whose pink hair says more about him that you might think), who find each other at a gay prom. And finally, we meet Craig Cole and Harry Ramirez, ex-boyfriends whose narrative, I should note, is based on a true story. These two boys are at the center of the story, planning the kiss that will break the current world record of over thirty-two hours.
The novel is narrated by a Greek Chorus of past generations of gay men lost to AIDS. While some cynical readers may find this style to be emotionally manipulative, these voices are crafted with such tenderness that I challenge you, the reader, to make your way to the end without being moved. This chorus of voices bridges a gap and will remind readers what past generations endured, and how current experiences for queer young people is both much more hopeful and yet still brutal and difficult at times.
The narrative weaves through each sub-story, revealing the past and present to us with consistent tenderness, eventually bringing all of the stories together for an intense and emotional conclusion. Although the plot does become quite full in the middle, and some might find it to be overwhelming, I found that Levithan was able to pull the story back from the brink, saving it from being too busy and too big for its own good. There were times when I thought a certain scenario was just too emotional, or another was manipulating me with overly intense emotion, but then I look back at my own life and remember how emotional I was as a teen, and it came back as feeling realistic, though definitely raw.
Craig and Harry are probably my favourite characters overall (possibly because I watched the actual events their story is based on), but it is difficult to play favorites since each young person has his own difficult and joyous story. The tale is universal, exploring diverse and very familiar subjects, from coming out to feeling trapped and alone, from the beauty of a kiss to the hatred it can inspire. These characters feel and desire, and hurt, and find happiness, and they, like the current generation of young queer people in the world, can overcome bigotry and ignorance.
Possibly the best of Levithan’s work to date, Two Boys Kissing is a truly amazing piece of literature that will hopefully stay with you for a long, long time.
We watch you, but we can’t intervene. We have already done our part. Just as you are doing your part, whether you know it or not, whether you mean to or not, whether you want to or not.
Choose your actions wisely.