” It’s not often that you really look at yourself, is it? It’s not often that you stare in a mirror. In the bathroom this morning I saw an androgynous fullness to my lips, a softness to the long slope of my jaw, this ambiguous eye, full lashes and no makeup, coming out from behind my hair. I don’t look girlish. I do look boyish. But I don’t look like a man. I’m something in between, and normally I don’t see it. It was just that angle as I turned, as I looked up. It made me flinch. It made me wonder if I was the kind of person who turned perverts on. ” (Part I, Max, 113)
Golden Boy is a novel that will stay with me long after I put it down. Not only for its gutting scene of abuse but also for the deeper issue it addresses—the discomfort some people feel when they cannot neatly categorize/label others, and the compulsion to define normalcy subjectively. The title refers to Max Walker, a popular, athletic, and attractive 16-year-old, the son of an aspiring MP candidate and criminal lawyer. He’s too good to be true. Teachers and girls love him, and his mother thinks of him as her perfect angel. But the Walker family is hiding a secret: Max is intersex. Biologically speaking he is neither a male nor female, a hermaphrodite. Since Max identifies as a boy, his parents, who struggle between protecting him and allow him autonomy, raise him as a son and never proceed through the necessary operation. The secret has long been buried but only surfaces in the most horrifying way that threatens to crumble the family.
I feel that my intersexuality is the main part of me, which is exactly what I never wanted growing up. I never wanted to be seen and judged on my in-betweenness alone. But that’s just what I am now. A product of my body, what it does, what it was made for. (Part III, Max, 268)
At its heart, Golden Boy is a coming of age story with the tension of a crime thriller. All it takes is one shocking event that turns the smiling uncomplaining, clever, and comfortable-in-his-skin Max into a hysterical, self-loathing being who is “not scared to die but scared to live.” (Part III, 314) The incident generates a slew of questions, regarding gender, ambiguity, and guilt that neither the family nor I see coming. It pains to see the damage well-meaning parents can incur on the child when their help becomes invasive and inappropriate.
But this meant that she could not make medical decisions for him when he was born, found it hard to take care of him without worrying she was hurting him and making the wrong choices for him. After those first few years of turmoil, Karen found a coping strategy. When things go wrong, she sits back, being too objective, too cold. It’s not her fault. (Part III, Steve, 275)
The book is told in multiple narratives—Max, his parents, his brother, his doctor, and his girlfriend take turn telling the story from their own perspectives. The result is a tersely written novel with a constant sense of immediacy. Each of the characters holds up well and has a different mood and nuance. Most of all Max carries along the narrative, with his gamut of emotions and traumatic reactions, in losing a bit of his innocent but gaining hope for happiness.
343 pp. Atria Books. Hardcover. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]