"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
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When I first met David Levithan, he was the editor of my suburban New Jersey high school newspaper. I was a sophomore and he was a senior. He was one of those nerdy-cool kids. He read Anne Tyler novels and was in love with Anna Quindlen. He wrote long loopy notes to friends and passed them off in the hallways, lines upon lines of erudition written in a tiny but consistent hand. He made mix-tapes with music you might not yet know. He would cut out designs from construction paper and frame the song titles, making art that enhanced the 10,000 Maniacs or Julia Fordham tape you had just received. He was smart and funny in a meticulous and offbeat way. Today, in the era of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and “Will & Grace,” you might say that David had a queer aesthetic — good taste, an eye for new trends. But you certainly wouldn’t have said so back then. Because at Millburn High School in 1989, “queer” was far from a friendly epithet.
As far as we knew, there were no gay kids at Millburn High School. It was a small school. A wealthy school. A Republican school, with George H.W. Bush winning straw polls and Jim Florio considered by a majority to be a liberal, evildoer governor. This was the 1980s, and there was nary a gay role model on the horizon: Melissa Etheridge and K.D. Lang weren’t even out, for God’s sake. Even the Indigo Girls were a mere rumor. The only literature for teens with gay characters was terrifying: Sandra Scoppettone books from the 1970s that ended in brutality, or the early 1980s classic “Annie on My Mind,” by Nancy Garden, in which two girls fall in love but everything falls apart in the end when they’re busted by a morality squad.
I lost touch with David not long after he went to Brown University in the fall of 1990. I heard, vaguely, that he’d come out, and that after college he had become an editor at Scholastic Books. And then, a few weeks ago, and years after I’d last heard his name, I discovered David’s new young-adult novel, “Boy Meets Boy.” As I read it, I heard David’s voice again. More refined, but with echoes of his high school self, a strong, engaging and intellectual stream of consciousness.
“I tell Noah about Kyle — how could I not? — and about some of the other disastrous dates I’ve had,” says the book’s protagonist, Paul, who is on a first date with a boy named Noah. “More the funny stories than the pained ones. The blind date with the boy in seventh grade who tucked his shirt into his underwear, and his pants into his socks, just to be ‘more secure.’ The boy at sleep-away camp who giggled whenever I used an adverb. The Finnish exchange student who wanted me to pretend to be Molly Ringwald whenever we went out. There is an unspoken recognition as we share these stories — we can talk about the bad dates and the bad boyfriends, because this is not a bad date, and we will not be bad boyfriends. We forget the fact that many of our earlier relationships … started in the same way. We pencil-sketch our previous life so we can contrast it to the Technicolor of the moment.”
“Boy Meets Boy” is a utopian gem of a novel, marketed to teens but so layered and wry, it’s bound to attract an adult audience too. It’s a queer romance, a coming-of-age tale, and it takes place in a high school that would make conservatives shudder. It’s the book I wish we had all had growing up, gay or straight.
In the past three years, literature for gay teens has had its own coming out. Books like “Rainbow Boys,” by Alex Sanchez, took a hard look at the issues of coming out, HIV and violence against gay teens. “Geography Club,” by Brent Hartinger, is about five gay kids who decide to form an underground gay-straight alliance. “Keeping You a Secret,” by Julie Anne Peters, features a popular, athletic girl (with a boyfriend) who falls in love with another girl and realizes she is a lesbian — with tragic familial consequences. But even these books, while commendable for featuring gay characters, are mini morality tales. The gay characters are scared to talk about being gay, or are tossed from their homes when they do.
“Boy Meets Boy” is notable for having none of that underlying anguish and for having a main character who isn’t keeping any secrets. When I recently sat down with David in his parents’ backyard in Short Hills, N.J., we talked about how his book transcends the heavy genre of Gay Teen Literature, with a queer main character who isn’t worried about being kicked out of his house, beat up at school, or ostracized from his family. He isn’t coming out. He barely even knows where his closet is. Like everyone around him, he’s just worried about finding love and keeping it. “Paul knows exactly who he is,” David says. “It’s not an attribute gay teens are normally given.”
Paul, a high school sophomore, has known since kindergarten that he’s gay. (“I had just assumed this man-woman arrangement,” he says, upon learning that not everyone is gay, “was yet another adult quirk, like flossing.”) He’s had boyfriends. He’s been class president. And all the while he, his friends, his family, his community — an unnamed New Jersey town that closely resembles Short Hills — has always known who he was. “There isn’t really a gay or a straight scene in our town,” Paul says, early on. “They all got mixed up a while back, which I think is for the best.” Paul’s story has all the ingredients of a typical teen romance — angst, rejection, redemption — but the characters happen to be boys. Paul and Noah fall hard for each other. Paul totally screws up the nascent romance by letting his ex-boyfriend Kyle kiss him. Word gets around that something is up between Kyle and Paul. Noah finds out and Paul has to do everything he can to win him back.
This Judy Blumesque drama is set in a fantastical, queer-friendly universe in a time period that is never specified, but might be right about now or in the very near future. Paul’s school is simply called “the High School.” It is the anti-Millburn, a place where the star quarterback is a drag queen, the cheerleaders ride Harleys, and the janitors are day traders. “In Paul’s world,” David says, “people, for the most part, are able to do what they want, and the result makes it a happier place. The boys and girls love who they want because, well, they can. It’s all a part of the ideal, which is different things for different characters.”
But beyond the quixotic confines of the High School, things are a bit more complicated. Tony, Paul’s best friend, who lives one town away, has a family that refuses to accept that he is gay. Unlike Paul, who lives with a loving and accepting mom, dad and brother, Tony has parents who are religious zealots. Paul and his friends spirit Tony away from his household under the pretense of Bible study and give him a taste of life — “romantic comedies, dimestore toys, diner jukeboxes” — outside. Says Paul, “We figure Tony’s parents would understand if only they weren’t set on misunderstanding so many things.” The system works, until one day friends of Tony’s family see Paul and Tony hugging each other in the woods. It’s not what it looks like, but it doesn’t matter — Tony is grounded and forbidden to see Paul. When Paul encourages Tony to run away, he refuses. “They think that being gay is going to mess up my life,” Tony says. “I can’t prove them right, Paul. I have to prove them wrong. And I can’t prove them wrong by changing myself or by denying who I really am.”
That the book is able to deal with Tony’s struggle without descending into the maudlin is a triumph. Tony manages to persuade his mother to allow Paul to be his friend, to come and see him — even if they have to keep his bedroom door open. “This is what a small victory feels like,” Paul says with wonder. “It feels like a little surprise and a lot of relief. It makes the past feel lighter and the future seem even lighter than that, if only for a moment. It feels like rightness winning. It feels like possibility.”
David explains that “Boy Meets Boy” didn’t start out as a teen novel — it began as a Valentine’s Day story for friends and quickly turned into a full-fledged manuscript. “I wrote the book I wanted to find as an editor,” he says. But he also wrote it as a way to rewrite all the unhappy endings in books and songs about gay teens. Tony is named for the eponymous Patti Griffin song, about a gay boy: “He looked in the mirror and saw/ A little faggot staring back at him/ Pulled out a gun and blew himself away,” Griffin sings. “I’ve heard that song hundreds of times and it still clobbers me,” David says. “I’ve never wanted to rewrite an ending so desperately, never grasped the narrator’s voice so much.”
David’s healthy characters come partly from his own healthy childhood. While he didn’t come out until college, he says that’s more because he was “oblivious” to his sexuality than closeted. At Brown he came out “gradually,” without any particularly painful scenes.
I ask David, what if his book, and others like it, had been around when we were growing up? “That’s a tautological question,” he replies. “The thing is, it couldn’t have been written when we were in high school.” He means the cultural moment we are in right now is unique, a product of everything from “Ellen” to “Queer as Folk” and everything in between. “It’s a different mind-set,” agrees Jennifer Brown, children’s forecast editor at Publishers Weekly. “It wouldn’t even occur to [these authors] who grew up in the late ’80s, early ’90s … to see a stigma [in being gay].”
Clearly teens are hungry for books that feature gay characters. “We’ve seen a big change in the last five years,” says Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “We used to just have just one or two books a year [with gay characters], and it wasn’t even every year. But in the last couple of years we’ve had several each year, so that’s a big, big shift.”
While booksellers don’t have a method for tracking the sales of gay teen novels specifically, the sheer number of books that have come out in the last five years is an indicator of a sea change in the market. From 1969 until 1998, says Horning, 28 young-adult novels appeared with gay, lesbian or bisexual characters. From 1998 until today, 42 more novels have been published. The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s Web site lists dozens of books recommended for teen readers, nearly all of which have been published in the last few years. And, in another sign that these books are gaining mass acceptance, they are winning awards. Since 1999, four gay-themed books, or books with gay secondary characters, have picked up the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Michael L. Printz Awards, which is comparable to winning the Newbery award for children’s literature.
“Boy Meets Boy” has already received positive feedback, both from reviewers and readers. Booklist said it represented “a revolution in the publishing of gay-themed books for adolescents.” (Booklist also chose the novel as one of its top 10 romances — gay or straight — this month.) The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (published by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) praised it as well: “In a genre filled with darkness, torment, and anxiety,” it said, “this is a shiningly affirmative and hopeful book.” David says that teens e-mail him daily at his Web site to tell him how much they can relate to “Boy Meets Boy”: “I thought that the dialogue was very witty,” says Tamar Sandweiss Back, a straight 13-year-old who also lives in a New Jersey suburb. “Someone who is gay can relate to it,” she continues, “but if you’re not gay it’s still a good book. I think it’s interesting to read. I’m attracted to books that are about people that I’m not.”
Teens — gay and straight — read to find themselves, David says. “Book-inclined kids, who read to find identity in part, weren’t finding anything saying it’s OK, it’s cool to be gay, and [the story] can be happy,” he says. “It should not be such a radical thing.”
Sarah Wildman is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.More Sarah Wildman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)