Title: Band Fags (Band Fags #1)
Author: Frank Anthony Polito
Publisher: Kensington Books
For this Rainbow Thursday I felt like reading a book that was a little different. It's YA in protagonist nature and thought, but written in such a way that a lot of adult readers will take enjoyment in the story. The last Kensington book I read was good but had some problems that just really did not gel with me. Band Fags is more to my kind of tastes - 80's references, more pop-culture centered gayness, and a teen protagonist in marching band. While it wasn't exactly what I imagined it to be, it surpassed the previous Kensington book I have read and made me pretty excited to read the sequel, Drama Queers.
Jack Paterno lives in the suburbs during the 80's, and his life revolves around the little things that make the era what it was. The soap opera syndications that were immensely popular. The after-school special movies that showed the meaning of relationships and how things could go wrong if you weren't doing the right things. Pop singers like Cyndi Lauper or John Cougar Mellancamp. Jack's biggest activity as a high-strung seventh grader is participating in Varsity Band. Marching and playing are a big part of Jack's life, and he soon meets Brad Dayton, a kid pretty near opposite in personality and idea to him - except for their connection with band.
A friendship forms between the two boys, and as they go through the rest of high school together, it's clear they are in it for the long haul. Brad and Jack also have something else in common that they are unsure of. Between talking about soap opera stars or celebrities who may be like that, neither one of them voices the possibility that they are gay. It's almost a dirty word to these two boys, who have in one way or another been assured that liking girls is the only 'right' way to be a guy. Yet they avoid it as much as they can, and instead get tangled up in the many dramas of teenage life in their attempts to discover who they are.
Jack fawns over a soap opera star. Brad has a strange friendship with a bad boy from the bad end of town he lives in. They secretly fawn over issues of Playgirl. Try and deal with girlfriends. Seventh grade to Senior year is all about finding themselves. In the eyes of Jack, we see a boy who isn't ready to accept himself, and takes a long and rough road before realizing something he knew all along. Growing up gay isn't an easy thing, and for Jack and Brad it's brutal until they learn to love who they are.
The one thing that made this book difficult for me as a reader from Jack. By all accounts he is a well written character with a lot of growth shown in a lot of different ways. He drops a lot of pop culture references and sayings that I think are hilarious and make the book a nice little 'blast from the past' (even if I wasn't alive during this past in question). Jack's growth is great, but through a lot of the book he can grate your nerves if you, like me, have no patience for his younger type of personality. He's very hyperactive and that shows in his staccato-natured sentences and the way he has a lot of thoughts going on in each chapter. I enjoyed the length to some extent because it felt realistic, but Jack can get annoying and, as he gets older, frustrating. To me it mainly came from the inability he had to recognize his sexuality. I pretty much knew by the time I was coming out of 8th grade, and while I know earlier in time it was harder to recognize it...Jack's ignorance to his self just got old for me. The outbursts that followed when Jack was struggling with it also got old. The more I ruminate on him, the more I see the intelligence and realism Polito wrote into him - but for me the character type is still hard to get into.
Jack is luckily lightened by some more friendly (and readable) characters. Brad Dayton was adventurous and so interesting. I liked him because he experimented and wasn't afraid to share his feelings for guys once he started recognizing them. His position in the drama club near the end of the story (as well as in the band) peaked my interest a lot, and I couldn't help but wonder what was in store for his character. Other characters are pictured with the general ideas of the time. A father figure, in Jack's case, that doesn't want to see his son feminine. Friends that may or may not be friends, depending on what they really know about Jack and whether they understand him. Jack is a very self-focused character, and while it means the story can get a little tiresome, we get to see how someone struggling to figure themselves out tends to see people with distorted views. Especially Brad when their friendship hits a major snag.
Polito's writing is probably my favorite part of the book. While some parts were slow going, I enjoyed the pacing and the rather 'epic' way of telling this kid's teenage years. Splitting into two books may have made problems easier to fix, but overall Jack takes such a while to get over himself that he needs this in one volume. The sentences actually mature along with Jack. We see more outside world focus and rumination on his actions, and his conflicts change and become more adult. In some ways he remains a kid until the very end, but it's nicely implied that he matures after the last word is said. Growth and writing well-handled, it makes it clear that Polito has a purpose in writing his character like this, and I have to enjoy the fact that he had some meaning behind it outside the initial nostalgia factor for those gays in their 30's/40's now that actually grew up during this time. The one thing I disliked was the distinct lack of band related topics, which were implied based on the title...blurb...cover...author quotes..
After finishing Band Fags, I was left with a lot to ponder. The main character and narrator is hard for me to like personally because of some polarity in personal experience (except for bad shit - I totally emphasized with the negative effects of being a gay teen) and having a character that was realistic yet frustrating. Yet the writing is well executed in its overall meaning to the novel...and I have to recommend it to readers who don't know what it's like to grow up in a different era and be gay (or who grew up in the era themselves). It's a nostalgia trip worthy of a John Hughes movie, and I think Drama Queers will be a worthy successor that hopefully surpasses what Band Fags started.
Cover: Love. It's out and proud and very band-related.
Rating: 4.0 Stars
Copy: Received from Craig at Kensington for review (requested) (Thank you, Craig!)