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Seventeen-year-old high school student Jake Powell is spending the summer at the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism. He’s the son of a preacher from Alabama and rather green around the edges—and he’s gay. Luckily, he’s smart and funny, and when he dodges preaching another failed sermon (a task at which he is apparently not good) at Vacation Bible School, his father hems, haws and finally relents. Hence, when Playing By the Book opens, our callow but very likable young protagonist is landing in New York by plane.
Fortunately, Jake’s aunt, Phoebe, is—to put it mildly, but in a thematically appropriate way–a godsend. Author S. Chris Shirley [Editor’s note: Shirley is on the board of the Lambda Literary Foundation] writes her as a much-needed break from the Southern homefront’s narrowness, and Phoebe turns out to be just what Jake needs. Jake is blessed by her company, then plunged into cosmopolitan New York—a setting full of wise and experienced kids—much to his chagrin.
For instance, one of his dorm-mates appears in his underwear hitching his thumb into his waistband and speaks casually of a high school boyfriend. Jake isn’t in “Kansas” anymore, but he has much work to do, ghosts to exorcise and feelings to work out.
Jake is well-versed in the Biblical passages and injunctions that hang him up as a young homosexual. What is so arresting about Shirley’s debut novel is that Jake doesn’t flinch from his religion. He faces it head-on, and he recalls the Biblical verses that remind him of the behavior he’s not supposed to exhibit. Quite flamboyantly, Shirley includes the original New Testament Greek that haunts young Jake. Yet, this is not some facile, or ignorant, rereading of general Christianity: it’s a specific and gratifyingly explicit reading of contemporary American mores. Even if we are constitutionally a secular culture, in truth our coming-of-age realities resemble Jake’s experience more than what our government-mandated separation of church and state would have us believe. Jake is caught in a picaresque narrative of adventure, and what he’s about to experience is very unpredictable—and very sexy.
Courageously, Jake heads point-blank into his new cosmopolitan life. While in New York, Jake meets a gay couple with an adopted a child––and what do they do but read the Bible? There begins an extensive passage of Bible verse quotations that would be disturbing for anyone, but that is especially traumatic and taxing for the young Jake, whose reading of the text takes on strong homoerotic overtones: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women . . .”
Playing by the Book is thus full of modern-day Christian agony. It takes the Bible seriously, as it does our American evangelicals and fundamentalists. If you grew up in this milieu as I did, it is especially poignant and apt. To excuse Biblical injunction in half our culture is to miss at least half of our cultural point. Jake is one of millions, and the fact that he is a serious Christian—able to decipher Greek in its original alphabet, while nodding at the original Plato and Aristotle—only points to his seriousness as a Westerner who has inherited a tradition spanning two millennia.
Have I mentioned that Shirley’s novel is sexy? Jake’s summer is so stocked with New York adventures that of course he gets caught up in a love triangle—with the smart and formidable Julie and the sexy and mysterious Sam. Meanwhile, Jake is just trying to stay afloat and not get caught as a rube—which is a relatable story.
A love triangle that includes a woman is a stock in trade in a lot of gay movies and art, yet Shirley makes full use of Julie. She isn’t just the stand-in for “the woman.” She has personality and is an excellent foil for Jake’s experience back home. When reading Playing by the Book, incredibly, it is almost possible to think that our hero will end up with this funny, smart and witty gal–which is perhaps the quintessential accomplishment of the modern gay writer. Shirley–being fully American, fully disabused of Christianity and fully in charge of his themes–understands that in order to discuss and expose essentially legitimized gay men coming from a culture that abhors them, we must exhaust the experience of smart, funny, in-control women who understand them. The author has apparently lived a full life, and with Playing by the Book, he gives all of it to us.
Playing by the Book
by S. Chris Shirley
Magnus/Riverdale Avenue Books
Paperback, 9781626010727, 314 pp.