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If you liked Totally Joe (reviewed elsewhere in this section), then this is a book for you.

Band Fags is the story of six years in the life of Jack Paterno, an angst-riddled, over-achieving 13-year-old straight-A student whose best friend, Brad, has shall we say some effeminate qualities. This teenage soap opera veers through all the usual highs and lows of adolescence, puppy love, fights, and friendships, all set in a Detroit suburb in the turbulent 1980s.

Jack and his friends are all members of the school orchestra, making them social pariahs -- "band fags" -- and he struggles with his desperate need to be popular and accepted, while also wanting to be loyal to his less-popular friends. Jack falls in and out of love with several classmates, several of whom betray him and/or break his heart, and learns many valuable lessons.

I think it almost works as a sequel to Totally Joe, with a very sweet, innocent attitude that gradually gets more serious as the story unfolds over a 6 year period, leading up to Jack finally graduating from high school and leaving for college. Many romantic triangles develop -- some surprising, with male characters you might not initially suspect as being gay or even interested -- and the writer expertly weaves in numerous 1980s pop culture references, with major hit TV shows, films, and hit songs providing a backdrop. It's basically a gay version of the critically-acclaimed TV series Freaks & Geeks, with similar cliques, outcasts, nerds, jocks, and popular kids all trying to coexist at the same school.

I have two problems with the book (and rest assured I won't reveal any spoilers): first, when Jack finally does have sex for the first time, at 16, he carries on a very one-sided affair with a major character, which makes no sense to me. There's no explanation why the receiver of his affection basically makes no effort to return the favor (and when you see who it is, you'll understand my concern), leaving Jack uncomfortable and a little embarrassed. This is never questioned or resolved in any way, and I can't for the life of me wonder why the character didn't say, "hey? how 'bout the courtesy of a little reach-around, here?" It's just one of those things they never talk about.

Secondly, early on in the book, Jack's mother suspects her son might be gay, confronts him in a very understanding, gentle way, which results in him immediately ending a friendship with another boy with whom he's obsessed. This character comes in and out of the story at certain points, but we never really know where the character's sympathies lie; the "is he or isn't he" plot thread gets stretched to the breaking point, with no payoff. There's one line in the book that implies two of Jack's friends were briefly arrested in a gay nightclub, for being underage in a bar, but again, it's a plot detail that's never resolved.

I hate novels or films that leave a dangling plot threads like this, but I think the author's point was, these things happen this way in real life, especially in high school. While I appreciate that life is never neat and simple, it doesn't necessarily make for satisfying fiction. The book kind of ends with very little being resolved, except for Jack resolving to learn from his mistakes as he bids his old friends goodbye for Michigan State.

Nonetheless, I thought the story and emotions were heartfelt, and there's no question that author Polito (who appears to have based sections of the book on his life) draws fascinating characters and very poignant, true-to-life situations. I was a band fag myself a decade earlier, and I smiled at the scenes with the orchestra members, vidily remembering the performing contests we attended, the football games, and the many other high school rituals we endured. The story's 1980s nostalgia is bound to appeal to anyone who grew up in that era, and if you ever had your heart broken as a young teenager, you'll empathize with the title characters.

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