Strap-ons, T-injections, and lesbian sex parties—young male adventures have come a long way from Huckleberry Finn.
Set in 2006, Adam, a debut novel from graphic memoirist Ariel Schrag, follows straight, 17-year-old Adam Freedman as he dives into New York City’s lesbian scene. Adam has sought refuge with his older lesbian sister from his suffocating home life and paranoia-inducing high school social scene. The hook of this not-so-typical bildungsroman is that he has fallen in love with a lesbian girl who believes he is a transitioning female-to-male transgender.
Adam, a private high school student in Berkeley, California, has decided on a whim to spend the summer with his sister Casey after “friends” brutally exclude him from a trip to Tahoe. His life is lackluster in every sense—friends, girls, and school just aren’t working out. Casey, who has just finished her first year at Columbia University, is the perfect child of the family—except her parents don’t know she is a lesbian who is into butch women.
Other than escape, the visit to New York comes with a mission—to find the girl of his dreams (he literally has an image of her from his dreams) and get laid so that he will return home cool. Alone and friendless in the city, Adam is forced to rely on his sister for his social life.
It is a common trope in pop culture, be it movies or TV, that straight men loooove girl-on-girl action. Yet, few would actually have the cojones to go to a lesbian bar. Adam, much to our comedic delight, not only goes to lesbian bars and parties, he actually tries to get laid. Unfortunately for him, when he does meet the girl from his dreams with the flowing red hair, Gillian, she is only interested in him because she thinks he is transitioning from female to male. You know, your standard boy-sees-girl-across-the-room, girl-actually-talks-to-him, and goes-home-with-him-thinking-he’s-transgender.
That backstory might be enough to make you leaf through a copy at the bookstore, but in fact Schrag has produced a truly compulsively readable novel. The will-he-won’t-he drama over whether Adam will confess his true status as biologically male (cisgender) keeps you turning pages. At the same time, his struggles will have the reader remembering secrets kept in teenage years that if exposed were believed to have ruinous consequences.
The book is sincere, dirty (but not in an excessive way), and downright hilarious. Schrag somehow manages to walk the increasingly thin tightrope of being respectful and yet brutally honest about transgender issues. That honesty—whether it be in discussing hookups without disclosing gender status or the unique challenges facing transgender youth—probably does more to educate than any lecture on appropriate terms or recent blowups at celebrities.
What is most striking about the novel, though, aren’t the graphic sex scenes or even the unique plot line. It is how well Schrag, an adult woman, completely nails male teenage years without being cliché. The tone and flow of the novel are such that the reader feels completely in touch with Adam’s mindset.
While there is the low-hanging fruit of masturbation, acne, and anger, Schrag fleshes out those struggles in the context of a human being. In Adam’s case, the masturbation isn’t because he’s strange, it’s so that afterwards he can be less strange. His anger, more often than not, is directed not toward women, but himself for his perceived failures. And acne, well, acne is just the great equalizer (move over, death and taxes).
Speaking as somebody who has lived through male teenage years and also waning friendships, I think Schrag is at her best when writing about the relationship between Adam and his longtime best friend, Brad. Brad is a smarmy, popular jerk, without whom Adam would have no credibility with the cool kids. When Schrag describes the two sitting alone in a room, nothing left to say other than recap stories from when hanging out was less strained, the stench of decay in the friendship wafts off the page.
At Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Fourth of July, when teenage family members (if willing to talk) confess the drama in their lives, it is endearing to those who have survived those years how much little things get blown out of proportion. And while audiences have become familiar with the precariousness of teenagers on the cusp between popularity and ignominy, Adam’s rising paranoia about every perceived symbol of his status and the drama over the number of IM’s a person gets remind us that teens live and die by a different set of markers.
While this book will surely be on the summer reading list for anybody with a family member or dear friend that fits under the LGBT umbrella, it could and should be enjoyable to anybody who picks it up. After all, its core message is universal.
Surviving our teenage years is no small task.