06 April 2011


85A is a book I might not have read.  The synopsis - angry, abused 1980s Chicago gay teenage main character fantasizes about moving to London - is interesting but not something I usually gravitate toward.  The author, Kyle Thomas Smith, pitched the book to me via email and I thought I would take him up on the offer to send me a copy.  I had intended to get to 85A around November...and then I packed everything (trust me, moving has a lot of fall-out when you pack up half your books and move them to your parents' basement then get pissed at yourself because you can't find the book you need and only labelled the boxes by genre; I'm just now catching back up on review obligations from pre-Christmas/January).  Apologies to Kyle.

The main character of 85A is Seamus, a kid of Irish parentage who idolizes all things British (especially Johnny Rotten) and has been abused by his bigoted father and neighbors since he was in grade school.  Any time something good has happened to Seamus - swimming, leads in school plays, books he liked to read, friends who value him - it was swiftly taken away because Seamus doesn't conform to normal, Catholic, Irish, conservative stereotypes.  Seamus relates his history as he waits for the 85A bus (always late, but he can't complain because the driver has kicked him off for complaining before) on a fateful day, the day he finally decides he can't take it anymore.

Seamus is an angry, depressed kid.  I mean angry (if you don't like f-bombs, too bad - he's a pissed off teenager and if he didn't swear every third word I would be surprised).  He doesn't do well in school because very little of it interests him.  He has rejected his parents' (read: his father's) values - middle-class conservative American snobbery - because they have rejected his.  He would like to go to art school, acting school, but he is forced to attend a private Catholic school.  His only friend, an intelligent mixed-race girl, sees the sweet side in Seamus and gives him books to read, books that appeal to the rebel side of his nature (Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath), books that are rejected by his upbringing (Seamus's father dismisses the girl with any number of racial slurs).  Seamus really has no group to belong to; rejected by his family, he is regarded as a poseur by the artist/punk community he gravitates toward.  Kids this angry and rejected are the ones likely to bring weapons to school and use them; in Seamus's case, he takes that rage and fantasizes about running away to London (I kept thinking that, for all the punk bravado Seamus wears like a shield, he is actually a gentle soul because he really never looks for confrontation; he fights only when physically threatened).

I think people with a background in GLBTQ literature would appreciate 85A.  It is hard to read at times - Seamus needs people to believe in him as he is and the lack of that by adult characters is apalling - but it is an accurate depiction of the inner monologue from a teen who is just beginning to understand his sexuality and identity.  The abuse he suffers because he is doesn't adhere to heterosexual American male stereotypes...no teenager should be treated this way, real or fictional, 1980s or 2010s.  I really liked the book, with all the digressions and side-trips Seamus's mind takes over the course of the day, but there is one aspect that struck me as unnessecary.  The (somewhat-implied) physical relationship with Dr. Strykeroth, Seamus's psychologist, struck me as too much fantasy.  It could have been a creation of Seamus's imagination - since he is the narrator - but it was really distracting in the reality of Seamus's life.

I'm quite glad Kyle sent me his book.  I wish him luck and look forward to seeing what he does in the future.

*Dear FTC, I received a review copy of this book from the author.

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