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The chronicle of the displaced, teenage sex worker is such a staple of gay film and literature that he’s almost his own genre. From Richie McMullen’s Enchanted Youth to Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, the young, inflammable rebel’s trials, tribulations, and “liberation” loom large in the creative mind with harsh lessons and dark, sexual adventures on urban mean streets. Award-winning young adult writer Paul Yee enters this heavily travelled terrain with his economical novel (clocking in at a neat 192 large-print pages), Money Boy (Groundwood Books). The title reportedly refers to what male sex workers are called in China, from where the 18-year-old protagonist, Ray Liu, hails. Unfortunately, the only thing fresh about Money Boy is the immigrant lens used to tell this otherwise clichéd novel. Sadly, it’s the author’s over-reliance on just how different the character rationales and choices supposedly would be because he is a relatively new Chinese immigrant that also becomes the underdeveloped work’s undoing.
Winner of the 1989 City of Vancouver Award for Saltwater City and the 1990 Shelia A Egoff Children’s Literature Prize for Tales from Gold Mountain, Yee does have a solid facility with language and he knows how to tell a story with the most minimalism the law allows, enough to thrill any MFA professor. His literary economy here is purposeful, as Ray’s story is told from the first person perspective and his grasp of English is reportedly limited, even three years deep in Canada. His voice here is clinically concise and the view of Toronto from where he sits rings true. Ray’s journey from family discovery of his sexuality to his subsequent estrangement from both his family and friends is tidily handled in the novel’s first act, as is the introduction of the character as an average student, gaming obsessed virgin who once was a practicing gymnast. Accordingly, his educational under-achievements are a bone of contention for his strict, formerly military father with the requisite medical school dreams and restaurant run by Ray’s Swiss stepmother. The character’s own mother is revealed to be a neglectful sex worker in her own right, one apparently relieved to turn over her burdensome son to his dad for both their good. While Ray has high school friends and a decently supportive brother, he does not trust any of them with his secret truth and patently refuses to reach out to them for support when he’s turned out into the streets, even when he has only one other option.
The second act is the meat of the story and the heart of this cautionary tale. Far from a story of sexual hijinks, this is a young adult book after all; the bulk lies in the series of unfortunate events—both systematically and personally driven—that renders Ray penniless and homeless. Here is where the protagonist—hardly the most likeable child to begin with—becomes frustrating to the point of dismissal.
The story of the displaced youth requires that at the very least the reader empathize and root for his success and well-being. Yee mistakenly believes the reader will sympathize with Ray simply because he’s a displaced teen in dire circumstances. This reviewer did not. Ray’s vanity, anti-socialism, unjustified pride, poor decision-making, prioritization of Rebel State gaming over surviving, and pre-occupation with how he’s viewed as a Chinese immigrant (this device is repeatedly used to justify foolishness) makes him a knuckle-headed 15-year-old instead of the reported 18. He’s presented not so much as immigrant than a sufferer of Aspergers. His willing to sleep in alleys and shelters with dangerous strangers, even after his victimization, over friends who’ve demonstrated little anti-gay sentiment (one is Christian and this supposedly makes her an improbable resource) strains credulity. His own overtly displayed anti-gay bias toward effeminate Chinese gays is believable given his cultural and father’s indoctrination, but it makes an elder queen’s masochistic willingness to help him out, despite Ray’s disrespectful attitude and flirtations with the queen’s boy toy, curious. Where Yee could have made readers sympathize with Ray’s plight by showing more of the horrors that beset Ray, instead of just having Ray tell them to us with so little detail and understated emotionalism, like the moment of Ray’s street victimization, Yee repeatedly fails to take advantage of his own opportunities for reader connection.
In the third act, our Holden Caulfield-like character finally finds himself in circumstances where he’s finally ready to be a money boy. Ray’s decline to this 11th hour decision is made less impactful by the early swiftness in which Ray considers sex work as a viable option; his father’s boot print on Ray’s back doesn’t sufficiently dry before such ruminations take hold. Yee’s implied explanation of Ray’s willingness to sell his tight gymnast bod because his mother also “sold tofu” is made less believable. Her prostitution is never something the teen is directly exposed to nor ever presented to him as a morally respectable route to self-sustainability, and yet two seconds after being in the streets Ray’s nonchalantly considering his first sexual experience with a man to be with a john. Few teens have such emotionally devoid visions of their first same sex experience, especially ones with no religion, and yet we’re nearly 150 pages deep before Ray expresses a hint of wanting something fine for his first time. Lui’s time on the streets after his first sexual encounter proves a tease given the title. And, the work’s spick and span ending while heartfelt, leaves one grateful to be done.
Yee may be attempting to display how the rote hustler narrative would work if the sex worker were a Chinese immigrant, to explore the cultural difference in the familiar, but the protagonist was so self-consumed, so without redeeming, empathetic qualities that his Chinese background and experiences were the most compelling thing about him and Money Boy.