This past week I read an unpretentious but very entertaining coming-of-age novel from a lucky author, which brings out significant aspects of the journey to becoming gay (The Sixth Form, Tom Dolby, Kensington Books, 2008). It's the story of two adolescent boys during their high school senior year in a prestigious New England boarding school, Berkley Academy. Ethan Whitley is the son of a couple of Californian teachers. His mother is dying from cancer and his parents have decided to send him to the East Coast to somehow preserve him. He is a good student, lonely, introvert, with low self-confidence, and very limited experience with girls. Todd Eldon is a confident looking outgoing boy who has had many girlfriends. His mother is a bestseller author living on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. His father has left the family and tries to make a living in real estate in Florida. Ethan and Todd become friends during the first weeks of the new school year. The novel's backbone is the unusual relationship which progressively develops between them - specially Ethan - and an English teacher, Hannah McClellan, an attractive woman in her thirties with a mysterious past who lives by herself in a seclusive house on the campus. The resulting tension makes you turn the pages almost as in a thriller.
At the start of the novel Todd is dating Alex, a pretty girl also at Berkley, and they are having sex most nights, although lately Todd has been doing it almost automatically, as a kind of obligation. He soon breaks up with her. He has become attracted to Ethan. The attraction is part physical (he becomes hard the first time he sees his naked body under the shower) and part sentimental: "He wanted Ethan to become his friend, to draw him into his life, to fill that gap that had been empty for so long." One night (they have both been drinking, it's Halloween evening) Todd kisses Ethan on a bench in the graveyard near Berkley's campus. After the kiss, Ethan runs back to his room. When he is back in his own room Todd cannot sleep. He feels shame. But Todd is clever and does not make the mistake many young gays do: "The kiss was such a revelation that he felt conflicted. He wanted more, but he also wanted to run away: to get back together with Alex, to reconcile with her, to acknowledge that this was all a mistake. Maybe he was attracted to girls and guys, destined to be one of those chameleons who refuse to be labeled. He considered the possibility as he threw on a pair of pyjama bottoms. Going back to Alex would be safe and secure, but stifling, a prison. Going in the other direction, whatever that might be, was the only option."
As the novel advances, Ethan's relationship with Hannah becomes more and more complex and consuming, and he drifts away from Todd, while the latter has to come to grips with his gayness. He does not identify with gay boys at school, "little faggots like Jeremy, scrawny, lisping queens - kids who had been kicked out of their homes, kids who were beaten up at school". He feels the need to talk to someone, but doesn't know who to turn to, torn between Ben, a gay masculine writer 10 years his senior who lives in Soho, Nick, his mother's agent, and his effete boyfriend Eduardo, Kyle, Alex's older brother who, he discovers, has recently come out ("It had never occurred to him that Kyle Roth might be gay. How could a family like the Roths (rich, successful, conservative) produce a gay son?"). He wonders how his mother ("It would thrill her, he couldn't bear it."), his brother would react to his own coming out...
Tom Dolby's novel provides powerful insights into the life of young gay men, seen from their perspective. Many gay men will remember things they felt when they were going through the same journey as Todd. What it is like to kiss a man: "But he didn't want a girl's kiss, sweet like fruit. There was no mystery in her, no deep caverns to explore. He recalled his kisses with Ben, his kiss with Ethan. It was different, a guy's kiss, skin rough and scratchy like sandpaper, teeth harder, larger, tongue more firmly pressed against lips." What it is about having sex for the first time with a man: "It was happening so quickly, so easily. Was this what sex was like between men? Were they even about to have sex? Would Ben just stick it in him, or would it happen the other way around? Was that something people did on a first date? Was this even a date?" He knows he is gay, but he does not want to be perceived as such, and he is still full of prejudices.
The Sixth Form is also an insider's account of the life in the privileged prep schools in America. It is also about the divide between generations, and, besides generations, between people. Most characters in the book go on with their lives, without even their closest relatives or friends suspecting what is going on. When Ethan opens a book he grabs from his mother's nightstand, during an afternoon he is spending at her bedside, a sentence stands out, underlined by a light pencil: We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. It is from a book by Virginia Wolff (On Being Ill) and it provides a good sense of what Dolby's novel is about.
I had just finished reading The Sixth Form and writing this post when I came across a report in the New York Times. Lawrence King, an unlucky 15-year-old Californian boy, was shot to death last week in Oxnard, a small beach community just north of Malibu. Having started wearing mascara, lipstick and jewelry to school, he said publicly in the recent weeks that he was gay. The 14-year-old classmate who shot him has been charged with murder as a premeditated hate crime...