Saturday, February 2, 2008

Gender is a Choice, Not a Life Sentence: Freak Show by James St. James

Where have I been for the past few months? Where haven't I been is a better question, but there are too many answers to that one--"Budapest," "Salamanca," and "Bluestockings NYC" come to mind. Where I have been is a much easier question to answer, and that would be Library School. Yes, like many greater book bloggers before me, I'm on the path to be a custodian of the cultural record, a grande dame of the general public's right to truth, knowledge, and the best damned Story Hour and Macaroni Picture Workshop in the NYPL.

Here are a few facts about your blogmistress: I live in Outer Borough of NYC, I go to East Coast Library School and love it more than I can stand, and when I'm not reading, I'm teaching myself how to watercolor and play Tori Amos songs on the keyboard. My favorite Outer Borough hangout is the Everything Goes Book Cafe, and if it were possible to marry The Strand, I probably would.

I've also invited my professors to view my oeuvre online; hello professors!

Now, down to business. Today, I have a review of a heartwarming tale about the coming of age of a teenage drag queen, Freak Show by James St. James.

(Goodbye, professors!)

Billy Bloom has accepted his fabulousness. The population of his reform-school-cum-prep-academy is not so keen on letting an all-singing-all-dancing fully costumed review of one flounce confidently through their hallowed halls. The abuse Billy endures is brutal, and culminates in a month-long stay in the hospital after a savage beating. His savior? The untouchable school quarterback, simple but kind-hearted Flip (who, need I mention, Billy is over-the-moon-and-heels-over-head in love with):

Since the day he carried my limp and lifeless body into the emergency room here at Plantation General Hospital, he's been by my side...He's been talking to me nonstop, he says, telling me stories, details about his life and his plans, anything at all, hoping that maybe the sound of his voice would guide me back.
And now his prayers have been answered.

Well! How about THAT!
Of course, I'm WILDLY jealous of myself for spending SO MUCH TIME with him and hearing his stories and GETTING TO KNOW HIM like that. I wish I'D been there. I wish he would tell ME stories. It's not fair!

Upon his triumphant return (wearing flowing white and bestowing blessings on all who did wrong by him), Billy decides to use his new untouchable status for good. How? By running for Homecoming Queen, of course. The opposition, Lynette Franz, has all the wholesome charm of a cupcake laced with arsenic, but Billy perseveres, winning the vote of his school's underground society and sparking a media war. I won't breathe a word about the end, but it's fitting and lovely.

Billy Bloom posesses the most unique voice I've read in young adult literature; if you can't abide capslock speak, you'd best turn back now. He is raunchy and witty and passionate, but with a heartbroken undercurrent sparked by the death of his relationship with his bon vivant mother. One of the only criticisms I have about this book is that this particular thread was not explored in a deeper manner, and it would have been great to see closure to that storyline. However, what is here is so surreal and wonderful. The story particularly picks up when Billy's best friend, Blah Blah Blah (I shan't give away her real name) joins him in a bloodless revolt against the status quo. While she suggests tae kwon do classes and The Art of War, he offers to design a boomerang tiara and hypno-belt-buckle with a compact full of knockout powder.

The art of fashion and makeup is Billy's driving passion:

Suddenly, I was tired of my mewling, tired of feeling powerless, and tired of being traumatized. I burst out of the cupboard and took over my place at the makeup table. Ah! The healing power of creation.

Our hero, a self-proclaimed "gender obscurist" (I love that term!), makes himself over with fierce Kali-inspired warpaint, bubbling wigs, and Spanish-moss draped gowns. You've never read fashion so over-the-top, except maybe in Simon Doonan's work and of course, Ms. Block's own. Billy's use of the healing power of art and transformative qualities of costuming (not always beautiful, mind you--he dresses as Dead Zelda Fitzgerald for an oral report, with strategic use of Grape Nuts and burned finery) brings to mind a line from "Fashion Quest:"

Call me superficial. But when my soul is fully expressed by my body, she can leave her dark room, sing her stories out loud and fearlessly dance.

There is something here in Freak Show that I've rarely seen before in queer teen lit. Despite the horrors that surround Billy, he never internalizes the horrendous things said about him. He realizes that the people out to hurt him are ignorant, cruel, or both, and his place in life is to speak for those who don't possess his bravery, or must keep silent to preserve their own lives.
Another rare theme is that of gender fluidity; sexuality in the Oughties cannot be easily labeled and categorized, and many young queer people are experimenting with all the shades and tones of gender identity. I loved seeing that explored in an exciting, positive manner in Freak Show.

Freak Show is a marvelous revenge-of-the-geek story, smart and sophisticated enough for the adult freak, but lively and snarky enough for its teen audience. I cannot recommend it enough for its fantastic narration, wicked wardrobe, and beautiful message.

You are a drag queen! It's your nature! You provoke. You expose. You arouse and inspire.
You open wounds and push buttons and rattle cages.
You unleash demons. You do! You do! You waken slumbering tigers. You know you do!
It's the path you've chosen. The life you desire.

Freak Show, by James St. James
The author's Myspace
A video on how to make your own tentacle makeup (Cheerios are involved)
"Holden Caulfield in Chanel, Size 4," an amazing interview at the School Library Journal

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