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[247] The World of Normal Boys – K.M. Soehnlein

“But mostly he wants to get away from this room; more than that, he wants to slip into the swarming darkness at the back of his skull and merge as a different boy–unobtrusive, disinterested, normal. Someone not worth an argument.” [166]

The World of Normal Boys is a coming of age novel even though Robin MacKenzie just plunges in puberty, aging from 13 to 15. Set in suburban New Jersey in 1978, Robin is about to begin high school, which he has been waiting for not so much for privilege but for the liberty to explore his sexuality. At a time when teenage boys around him make the transition into young manhood, which is characterized by sports, fast cars, and girls, Robin enjoys day trips to New York City with his elegant mother, who is raising him to be like her: snobbish, literary, and cultured. Robin, however, can feel his father’s silent disappointment whenever he shifts his expectations to his bratty younger brother.

Humiliations great and small greet him every class period. [22]

All I know is nobody wants some kid their own age talking like their dumb mother. Why do you think Larry’s a;ways bothering you? You ask for it, Robin. [30]

As Robin secretly pursues the fulfillment of his sexual desires, a tragic accident befalls the family and plunges them into a spiral of slow destruction. Guilt overcomes his younger sister who turns into a religious fiend. His father’s once comfortable detachment has hardened into rage that targets at his being rebellious and inconsiderate; his mother’s irresistible style has been honed to a brittle edge frayed further by her drinking. They have become strangers who argue and stare at each other in anger and confusion.

I made a friend, you should be happy I have a friend. A guy friend. Isn’t that what everyone expects, for me to be more like a guy? Have guy friends? So you know what guys do? They ditch school and hitchhike and smoke and they don’t run home to their mother like crybaby… [103]

So Robin becomes a juvenile delinquent who gets deeply involved with two outcasts, Todd Spcier and Scott Schatz. He embarks on a perilous odyssey of sexual self-discovery, unbeknownst to his parents, who blame it on the aftermath of the accident, that leads to larger questions of what it means to stand on his own. Tension of the family trickles into the root of the MacKenzies’ unhappy marriage, revealing that his mother has been a stuck-up housewife who feels her life has been wasted.

I thought, ‘Robin is not like any of those other boys.’ I couldn’t even describe the difference. I mean, I could, but it would sound cliche. He was gentle. He was emotional. He was sensitive. [244]

The World of Normal Boys is so true to life in its delineation of the bittersweet conundrums of adolescent queer love. Packed with so many significant events and milestones, Soehnlein captures the shift of family dynamics in the face of a tragic loss. It’s an ode to a loving and intuitive mother who wants to protect her son from being a social outcast by paving the path for him to live a normal life, that is, assimilation. Although Robin is still uncertain about his future, his awakening homosexuality is preparing him for what the harsh real world might throw at him. At times queasy and unflinchingly explicit, this book explores growing pain to the fullest.

282 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]