Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, 196 pp, RL TEEN

This review originally appeared on 3/3/14
two boys kissing by David Levithan
Source: Purchased at Barnes & Noble

If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I don't know what it means to be different. I don't know what it feels like to genuinely be an outsider. I don't know what it's like to be part of a group that is actively hated by another group. And I am not particularly brave. I live my life and experience this world through books for the most part. I read to know what it feels like to be in another place and another time. I read to know what it feels like to be another person. Good writing allows the reader feel something. Superlative writing allows the reader understand what she/he/they is feeling. Every time I read a novel by David Levithan, his writing allows me to feel something by reading about the experiences of someone else and his writing makes understand what I am feeling. I guess, to simplify it, Levithan's writing, if you choose to open yourself to it, is guided empathy in the form of a deeply moving, entertaining story.

Leviathan achieves this sort of guided empathy masterfully in he newest book, Two Boys Kissing, which had me in many different kinds of tears on almost every page. The most stunning aspect of Two Boys Kissing is the narrator, a Greek Chorus that is voiced by the generation of gay men lost to AIDS. Lovingly, knowingly, understandingly, this collective narrator observes seven boys, six of whom are connected by the beginning, middle and end of a romantic relationship. Set in nearby small towns, there are many common threads that weave through the stories of Ryan and Avery, Neil and Peter, Harry and Craig and Cooper, but the strongest revolves around Harry and Craig, the two boys kissing of the title. Once a couple, Harry and Craig have broken up, although Craig is still in love with Harry. When their friend Tariq is the victim of a hate crime, Craig, who is not out to his family, feels helpless and deeply saddened. Tariq was brutally beaten because he is gay and, while Craig knows that his family would never break his ribs, they have other ways of breaking him - "with silence, with disappointment, with disapproval. They had beliefs, and those beliefs were stronger than any belief they had in him." Long fascinated by the Guinness Book of World Records, Craig lands upon his idea to "show the world that he was a human being, and equal human being," and he and Harry and Harry's parents begin to plan to break the record for the longest kiss - over 32 hours. With Tariq providing a live feed (and personalized soundtrack) and their friend Smita providing energy drinks and anything else they might need and the high school offering the use of their front lawn, the boys begin their kiss with the collective narrator commenting, "Two boys kissing. You know what this means. For us, it was such a secret gesture. Secret because we were afraid. Secret because we were ashamed. Secret because it was a a story that nobody is telling."

Circling around the stories of Craig and Harry and their kiss, a relationship burgeons between Ryan and Avery, who was born a boy in a girl's body, a relationship that is threatened by the hatred of others, but ultimately saved by not giving into the hate. Nobody has to be watching for Avery to feel like he is being watched,

He is almost used to it, but will never truly get used to it. The feeling that he's trespassing. The feeling that he will be confronted. The feeling that the world is full of people who think different is synonymous with wrong.  No matter how strong Avery gets, there will always be this subterranean fear, this nagging shame. We want to whisper to him that the only way to free yourself from shame is to realize how completely arbitrary it is . . . There is power in saying, I am not wrong. Society is wrong."

Neil and Peter's year-long relationship, comfortably moving towards the "what comes next" phase, is shaken when Neil, spurred on by the hatred unleashed on a radio program discussing Harry and Craig's kiss, confronts his mother, stern and unwilling to admit out loud what she knows inside, that her son is gay and that Peter is his boyfriend. She refuses to understand why it is important to Neil to hear her say these words, words that his father and younger sister say out loud. A very tense scene that plays out in a quietly powerful way, it ripples across the rest of the story, resonating, as the stories of all seven boys do, with each other. And, in turn, their stories are commented on, reflected upon, by the narrative chorus, which provides an even wider, greater arc of understanding and experience for what these seven boys are struggling with, the strides and the great progress as well as the sad prejudices that still remain. I was in high school when AIDS was officially declared a sexually transmitted disease and an epidemic. I remember when Magic Johnson announced that he had AIDS in 1991. I knew what a devastatingly brutal, cruel disease it was, yet, it did not touch me personally. Like not being part of a group of outsiders, being part of a group of people affected by an epidemic was alien to me. However, in the short, powerful paragraphs and vignettes Levithan, who, in his author's note and acknowledgements, includes himself in the very short gay "generation" that "existed between the height of the AIDS epidemic and the proliferation of the Internet, the former defining the generation before me, and the latter defining the generation after me," gives readers a sharp look at the suffering that this disease wrought, the lives it cut short and the families that it destroyed. This is all voiced by a narrator who knows that being alive and being in love are imperfect states of being, a narrator wh is able to see the beauty in these flaws. In the character of Cooper, Leviathan brings to life a boy who is increasingly alienated by his dependence on the internet and the options at his fingertips in the privacy of his own room, a privacy that is ripped from him by his father. As the paths of the stories of all seven boys reach a pitch point, the novel builds to a heartbreaking point, one that comes after heartbreak after heartbreak. Yet, despite this, Levithan is gentle with his readers, saying, "You should all live to meet your future selves."

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