Book 580: Freak Show – James St. James

Wow – there’s a lot to take in from this book and I’m glad I read it even though it definitely took me for a bit of a spin. And even though it took a while for me to get used to the writing, the characters, and the flamboyancy, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Unlike other young adult LGBT+ novels—emphasis on “G” (Out of the Pocket, Autoboyography, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Geography ClubBoy Meets Boy, Two Boys Kissing, etc.), this book has a character who doesn’t happen to be gay, who isn’t some jock that likes guys. Billy Boyd is loud and proud, even if he doesn’t quite know how to define himself just yet.

This book was great for me because of this. Too often we read what we’re comfortable with, what we know, but this book was not that. The idea of a young man in high school being so unabashedly flamboyant and so proud of who he is beyond social construct and acceptability is anathema to me. I mean don’t get me wrong, it’s more familiar to me as a child of the 80s-90s than it would be to someone as a child of the 60s-70s, but it’s still not quite the easiest thing to just be like, oh yeah that’s “normal” (whatever that is).

I won’t lie – it took me 50-60 pages to really get into the book. A lot of it was St. James’ style of writing, which is good and bad. It’s good because he was inside Billy’s head and wrote/spoke like a teenager with a lot to say and a lot going on. It was bad because you either have to enjoy that writing/speaking style or be able to adapt to it pretty quickly. I also don’t think it comes across as well in writing as it would in speaking or performing.

St. James had me laughing throughout the book, but these were a few highlights:

“As a young drag-queen-in-training, my looks are perfect for size four Chanel suits and turquoise eye shadow, but not so perfect for blending with the locals, if the locals are, you know, of the mulleted persuasion…” (10)

“So, now you know how I feel. I am quite confident that very soon you will get a special visit from the Bluebird of Bisexuality, and you will realize that I am the one for you, too. And from then on, everything will be picnics and plum pudding. And won’t that be heaven?” (69)

“Yes, Flip is fantastic. Yes, it’s nice having him around. I’m president of the fan club. But, JEEEZ. He’s just a kid! A high school kid! I mean, you’d think it was the LORD GOD, TOM BRADY himself, who had dropped out of the sky to admire dad’s old trophies and give him a backrub. (Well, OF COURSE, I know who Tom Brady is, ding-dong! Give me SOME credit. He’s only the dreamiest Visa spokesman EVER!)” (128)

The not-so-subtle digs at conservative southerners, the fluidity of sexuality, and the nod to lack of sports knowledge (there’s another section at the end but was too spoiler-y) all just made me laugh.

The book also did a great job of balancing the terror faced by LGBT+ teens and handled a few situations more delicately than I assumed it would based on the writing leading up to it, but also gave light and support to LGBT+/Queer pride and knowledge.

“It’s always there. A bit of gay terror. Bubbling under the surface. Threatening to pop up and expose you. I mean, you can’t un-gay yourself whenever it’s inconvenient for you. Despite what Republicans seem to think.” (159)

“Pull yourself up to your full queenly height! Rise higher! You are a goddess! A Superfreak! An artist! An iconoclast!

Other have come before you — proud warriors, beautiful she-males. Say their names! RUPAUL! BOY GEORGE! They are legend! PETE BURNS! LEIGH BOWERY! Sister soldiers! DIVINE! SYLVESTER! Call upon their strength and styling skills! HOLLY WOODLAWN! CANDY DARLING!” (196) [All Wikipedia links.]

I had to look up a couple of those St. James mentions above, but was proud I knew more than I thought I did (after confirming).

St. James, like Hartinger in Geography Club does a good job of pegging high school cliques/stereotypes in the south and just teenagers in general.

“Where were all the saggers, the mopheads, the club kids, the fasion fags, robo-trannies, go-go goths, Hello Kiddies, sk8r boys, pixie chicks, hood rats, boho babes, betty bots, electroclashers, giant monster fag hags, Paris-ites, and angry/lesbian/ovo-lacto-vegans? Where is the great and terrible cross-section of teen culture that makes school such wicked good fun?” (16)

“But I’m here today to say that deep down, we are all freaks. Yes! Alone in our rooms at night, we are all weirdos and outcasts and losers. That is what being a teenager is all about! Whether you admit it or not, you are all worried that the others won’t accept you, that if they knew the real you, they would recoil in horror. Each of us carries with us a secret shame that we think is somehow unique…We are freaks, because we’re teenagers! We are, by nature, oily, throbbing, mutating, misshapen space aliens. We have zits the size of matzo balls and strange patches of spur sprouting daily. Yes, yes, WE ARE ALL FREAKS! IT’S  WHO WE ARE! IT’S WHAT WE DO!” (248)

I found the evolution of Billy’s relationships with various characters to be engaging even though most of the characters were underdeveloped. We only know the characters through Billy’s eyes/thoughts and even those are questionable as he goes back on some things and acknowledges he lies in multiple instances. I’m not sure I’d call Billy unreliable, but let’s just say that at the end I’m not 100% sure the final scene/line happened, but it’s convincing enough to leave me with a smile and just a hint of doubt.

There was a film adaptation of this released in 2017 (IMDB link) that I haven’t seen yet, but after reading this I definitely want to see how the adaptation works.

Recommendation: READ THIS. You may have to read it slowly, and you may have to stop reading it, but it’s worth the read. It’s not quite a slog, but it’s also not as easy to read as the popular-but-happens-to-be-gay trope or the invisible-but-gay trope. It challenges how you think about being gay, the closet, and how you think about teenagers coming into their own.

Opening Line: “HERE WE GO! Being fabulous, being relentlessly fabulous, is damned hard, hard work , I can tell you that much.”

Closing Line: “Yes, there was peace on earth when love saved the day and Flip and I lived FABULOUSLY ever after. Well, of course!” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)


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