Sunday, August 5, 2007

I was a teenage drag queen

I picked up this book based on a review, and it was one of those books where I kept changing how I felt about it the entire time I was reading it. At first I found Billy, the seventeen-year-old protagonist, a bit too articulate to be believable. But he's funny and clever, so I found myself buying it as the story went along.

Billy Bloom's mother has kicked him out of the house, and he now must spend his senior year in Florida, at a snooty private school for wealthy kids with "issues." This is not the sort of place, one would think, where the new kid in school, who bursts into his first class wearing make-up and a flamboyant pirate-esque costume, might expect to be welcomed with open arms. But somehow, Billy thinks he just might be. Of course, his grand entrance is a disaster of epic proportions.

I never did figure out what Billy's true motivation was, what was behind his wildly exhibitionist streak and need to express himself, be himself, at all costs. And why he is continually surprised when his progressively more outrageous drag appearances provoke nothing but further scorn and abuse from his classmates. Still, I found myself liking him so much that I was happy to go along for the ride. Billy is pushing his limits, and he means business. He is tormented mercilessly by the beautiful but bigoted kids in his school, and while many parts of the book were very funny, this section was difficult to read. Children being so cruel, saying and doing terrible things, teachers turning a blind eye - granted, Billy is a bit over the top; but still, that kind of thing goes on in subtler but equally harmful ways in many schools every day. He ends up hospitalized, but as a result, he also makes some friends.

One of them happens to be Flip, the hottest guy in school, a football hero, who is horrified by what has happened to Billy and is determined to protect him. And if Billy is head over heels about Flip, he'll never need to know, right? Billy is somehow the only one who realizes that the pressure and expectations surrounding Flip are just as bad as, if not worse, than the issues that Billy is dealing with. Billy exposes Flip to the joys of classic Hollywood movies, gourmet food and insanely creative makeup artistry (think swamp monsters and robot-trannies), and Flip becomes a real friend.

Toward the end of the book, it suddenly struck me that I needed to stop paying so much attention to all the contradictions in Billy's character and stop trying to figure him out. I was missing the point - he is a teenager, and he's groping around blindly trying to figure himself out. Of course he's full of contradictions! The tone of the book reflects these contradictions, ranging from laugh-out-loud hilarious to desperate, confused, depressed, optimistic and angry. I would have liked a little more about the parents, who were strangely absent during most of the book. Billy's father only appears once or twice - we get news of him, as well as his mother, but they tend remain in the background. There are important developments, but they take place off stage.

I realize there will be some knee-jerk reactions to this book, and it probably won't find a place on some school library shelves. Still, it deals with important issues that affect all teens: self-respect, acceptance, and empowerment. Plus it's told by a narrator who grabs you by the hand and pulls you along into an immensely entertaining tale.

Freak Show by James St. James (Dutton Children's Books, 2007)

3 comments:

  1. This sounds like a really neat book. I can see why you'd go back and forth on it, but I like your ultimate take on it.

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  2. Oooh, sounds good! It's on my list. I know you already read Geography Club, but have you read Totally Joe by James Howe and/or Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan? They're both good, with characters that sound reminiscent of Billy. Boy Meets Boy is firmly in the "magical realism" category - there's (sadly) not really a high school like the one it depicts.

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  3. heather - yes, it is a neat book, and I'm glad I read it! I will be looking forward to St. James's next book, and I hope it will be a YA novel, too.

    dev - I loved Geography Club, and also the sequel (but maybe not quite as much). I haven't read the others, though - I'll put them on the list! Thanks for the recommendations.

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