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Mary McKinley’s debut novel offers a unique point of view that most young adult authors shy away from, while at the same time employing a lot of comfortable clichés. Beau, Lee, The Bomb, and Me follows Rusty Winters, an obese teenager who is not only sorely unpopular but a self-proclaimed smart girl who spends much of the novel in her head. Rusty is incredibly sarcastic and clever for her age, but all of that goes ignored by the oh-so ethical-laws of a high school popularity system. Because of the general heckling she receives and lack of social settings Rusty finds herself in, large portions of the book are glued together with a constant internal brooding that sometimes reaches valuable points and other times becomes repetitive. The second page of the book sets the narrator’s tone as clear as a bell: “I’m sixteen years old and I reflect on death nearly every day. And the death that I reflect on is mine. Because I hate my life. Sometimes I actually daydream, for hours here in my room, about just what I’d do…about the stress and the mess and how to deal.”
Enter Leonie (or “Lee”), her inexplicably beautiful yet largely underdeveloped best friend who becomes an outcast for sleeping with a teacher and whose attitude offers a point of contention throughout the story.
Enter Beau, the new kid in school who is openly gay, and therefore, someone Rusty immediately sees as a new whipping boy for her bullies. Relieved to have someone who is lower on the caste system than her, she is, at first, quick to shirk him off.
Enter Bullies, who commit a rather shocking series of hate crimes to Beau that set the story in motion.
In a familiar band-of-misfits shtick, the three outcasts become friends and make pilgrimage in Rusty’s mother’s stolen car to San Francisco, where they will try to find Beau’s uncle and hide out until things cool down. They all find solace in each other and the community they’ve created on the road, and therein lies the thesis of the book, which presents itself early on:
The problem with withdrawing from the mean people is you never know who the mean people are going to be, so you shut down everyone. Which is also what I did. And from which, my friends, I suffered even more, upon recollection. I do not miss my depression. I do not miss being broken. I do not miss the void. I never knew how much I wanted to be a part of a gang till I had one. Even a gang of misfits.
The three misfits are cringingly unaware of gay culture and unique gay identity. Even though their knowledge of gay world scarcely differentiates from the common stereotype, they each take turns discovering that there’s more to it. They have a preconceived notion of San Francisco as a gay Mecca, and Uncle Frankie as a savior, even though he’s given them no reason to bank on him other than the fact that he is gay.
In that, the book raises a lot of questions about what kids in a modern age, even gay kids, think about gay culture in general and where they fit in along a stretch of different kinds of prejudices. Where Rusty tells a story of physical discrimination, Leonie, a story of sexual discrimination, and Beau, a story of LGBT discrimination, all seem to cohere. Each member takes turns building each other up and knocking each other down, presenting a valuable lesson and pointing out a problem we often find ourselves in when looking at human rights and our own social follies.
Along the way they are (of course) joined by a scrappy, mischief-making stray dog they call “The Bomb,” and set on an adventure that takes them through the Twilight tourist town of Forks, armed robbery, a rather one-dimensional portrayal of drag culture, a lawsuit, a commentary on the modern day AIDS crisis, and an epiphany on Christmas Eve.
What the book lacks in depth of character is made up for with heart. You will find yourself wanting to take flight on an ill-informed adventure, and gather your own misfits. Each character, somewhat predictably, takes a turn learning something about prejudice. Tables turn and turn until they realize that everyone falls victim to, and that no space is a safe space. The solace of friends, they’ve found, is just about all they need to move through life confidently and make this life more than worth living.
Beau, Lee, The Bomb, and Me
By Mary McKinley
Paperback, 9781617732553, 256 pp.