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The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second


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I'm not generally a fan of diary-style 1st-person fiction, but Ferguson overcomes these limitations by making the title character a witty, self-depreciating 11th-grade nerd in a contemporary high school. His father (aka "First") is an overbearing jerk, his mother a self-absorbed housewife; the kid hates his life, gripes about everything and everybody, but somehow manages to survive, largely through his humor and sheer guts.

Charlie's 17, been out for several years to his parents and friends in a Chicago suburb, but has no sexual experience beyond some rare groping and a lot of self-exploration (with "Mr. Five-Incher" as he succinctly puts it). He's an average high school student, distinguishing himself only in chorus and on the soccer team. He describes himself as looking like "a real dork," and (judging by the cover illustration and the author's description), I'd say he's basically a teenage version of Napoleon Dynamite. Charlie's best friend is Bink, who he's known for ten years; Bink is decidedly straight, a popular jock on the football team, and occasionally acts as Charlie's reluctant protector from the occasional homophobic jerks at school.

Charlie's life turns upside down when a handsome new athlete, Rob, joins the soccer team. Much to their mutual surprise, each boy discovers the other is gay, and they wind up as an item. But it turns out Rob has some troubling secrets: despite being attractive and well-to-do, he's got a bad temper, plus his mother is dying of an incurable disease -- which eventually lead to some painful moments.

What I liked most about Ferguson's novel was how the story goes into some very unexpected areas, not shying away from the crueler sides of high school life or troubled families. For example, we learn that neither Charlie's mother nor his father are quite the people we thought they were; neither is boyfriend Rob. Charlie's insecurities and fears are consistently offset by a laugh-out-loud (albeit unmercifully cynical) sense of humor, and he has a great way of reducing life's disasters to one punch-line after another.

Unlike most young adult novels, this one (published by noted gay press Kensington Books) gets into some fairly explicit territory. But the sex scenes are extremely realistic: messy, awkward, even painful, and yet often with enough romance and passion to make it all worthwhile. The dialog is very sharp, the plot twists are often unexpected, and the ending isn't nice and neat, but nonetheless satisfying. My one criticism is that I think the emotional content is a little lightweight; for example, it's hard to see why Rob and Charlie would want to be friends, let alone lovers, having so little in common.

Nonetheless, it's worth reading if only for the stylish dialog and sharply-defined characters. I think it's an unusual take on a contemporary gay kid in school who's not ashamed of who he is, but still doesn't fit in to any of the usual cliques, and struggles to find a way of getting accepted. There are a lot of stories out there that try to tackle this same territory and fail; Charlie the Second succeeds admirably.

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Yeah, this section is specifically to review books in print. You know, as in ink on paper, from a brick-and-mortar bookstore or library. Or Amazon if you prefer. (Used copies start at about $6, which ain't bad.)

Not yet available on Kindle or any eBook readers that I know of. BTW, if Amazon comes out with a new Kindle this week, I may just go nuts and buy one. Hope this new version actually looks good, unlike the original one. Still not enough contrast in the damned screen.

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