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Meet Leonard, a brainy 14-year-old dweeb growing up in 1970s Berkeley, California. He’s got the usual bright kid’s powers of observation, along with the ingénue’s ability to imagine a different world, where even he could thrive—other planets with less gravity, for instance, or perhaps if he were an inchworm. But in the meantime, he has to endure the usual adolescent abuse at the hands of the not-so-bright or imaginative (one always expects that a university town like Berkeley would have more enlightened children—think again).
It’s clearly not easy for Leonard, with his baby fat and acne. But then, fortune smiles upon him—or so it seems—while walking home through People’s Park one afternoon. There he meets a handsome young hippie named Rick, who talks to him about truth and love. Rick turns out to be a Jesus freak, but still, Rick is handsome, and he’s talking about love. And while we’re not sure where Leonard is in his gay development, we can see that a beautiful young man smiling and talking about love is enticing. Leonard is soon convinced that love is the answer, and hearing that Rick is on his way toOregon to live in a commune, Leonard decides to follow.
And so begins Leonard’s unique brand of teenage rebellion, which includes abandoning the “dweebs” for the “burnouts” at school, while at home his intellectual atheist parents send him to his room for mentioning Jesus. They’re not too fond of his favorite book either—Jonathan Livingston Seagull—which their professor friends eviscerate one evening over dinner, much to Leonard’s consternation.
Eventually, Leonard learns that Rick prefers wispy angelic boys, concluding, “Who’d ever heard of a short, chubby angel with acne.” Leonard self-deprecates, but it’s always charming and practical. He never surrenders to self-pity, and his earnestness and naive self-confidence lead him from one humiliating experience to the next as he continues his search for universal truth. When he mentions to a receptionist in an office that he’s interested in the meaning of life, he gets a pragmatist’s dressing down about how that line of thinking will lead him to the poor house, drugs and divorce, just as it did her daughter.
Like said receptionist, women are always the voice of reason in Orloff’s comic universe, just as men are generally buffoonish and egotistical, whether it’s Leonard’s brother Danny who listens to Yes and Jethro Tull between bong hits and commentaries on the fascism of grades, or Rick, the ridiculously self-deluded Jesus freak who’s molesting teenage boys and selling pot in the name of love.
Orloff’s characters are well-drawn and loveable, full of irony they’re never quite aware of, making one wonder why Orloff isn’t writing comedy for TV. His wit is Wildean, as in his previous novels, Gutterboys and I Married an Earthling. His metaphors and analogies are fresh, dizzying and funny. Describing his lack of musical talent, Leonard tells us that “the notes came out in the right order, but without joy or surprise, like squares on their way to dead-end office jobs.” And, while attempting to love the school bully, who incidentally reminds Leonard of the sexy cowboy in the Honeycombs cereal ad, he imagines his heart, “as small, shriveled, and dark as one of the rotted plums that spread themselves promiscuously under the plum tree in my backyard.” Later, when he visits a gay bar, he describes the dance floor “where a handful of guys were jumping around like water on a hot greased skillet.”
Leonard’s coming of age is a gay victory—when truth and love are not enough. There must be beauty too. For while Leonard has seen the darkness of samsara, it’s the brightness of fluorescent lights that really gets him down. He’s only found Jesus because he’s hot for Rick, and his interest in Buddhism is more about how lithe the Buddha is, as described by Herman Hesse in Siddhartha, than the enlightened one’s philosophy.
Readers suspect from page one that Leonard’s idealistic search for truth is surely doomed, but because he’s such a sweet kid, one figures he’ll eventually come to understand that his parents’ humanism was right all along (but they’re his parents, and he can’t agree with them—at least not yet!). In the meantime, his story is a great ride, though it ends rather abruptly, leaving me wanting more. Why Aren’t You Smiling, as its title suggests, is a delightfully hilarious coming of age story that asks us to laugh at ourselves, at pop culture and religion, and at all those things people just don’t laugh at quite enough.
WHY AREN’T YOU SMILING?
By Alvin Orloff
Manic D Press
Paperback, 9781933149585, 162p pp.