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“A lot can happen in a day sometimes,” says Wesley Bowman, one of two teenaged boys at the center of Richard Kramer’s witty and often moving first novel, These Things Happen (Unbridled Books). This opening line, of course, is prescient. A lot does happen in each of the few days that frame this story, in which the adults in Wesley’s life are forced to reevaluate their understanding of themselves. And while it is in part an act of violence that triggers this self-reflection, one of the many strengths of the novel is that the tone of the storytelling is not one of high drama, but of charming understatement that makes these days both eventful and, well, everyday.
These Things Happen takes place in present day New York City. Wesley Bowman has moved in with his father, Kenny, and his partner, George. Kenny is a national voice for LGBT justice: Barney Frank steps in for him when he can’t make a Charlie Rose interview. George is an actor turned restaurateur, a role that requires just as much performing as any in the theater. When Theo, Wesley’s best friend, wins the presidency of his tenth grade class and in his victory speech announces he is gay, Wesley accepts the news with barely a shrug. Kramer is particularly skillful in depicting the relationship between these two friends, one gay and one straight. Their nonchalant treatment of their sexual differences buoys the novel with an optimism that is tested when both boys are injured in what appears to be a hate crime. The assault on the boys puts into motion one of the novel’s central questions: How well do any of us know each other and how well do we know ourselves? The book’s sublime irony is that when Theo comes out of his closet, the emotional closets of the two out gay men, George and Kenny, are thrown into relief.
These Things Happen is told in the present tense, mostly from multiple first person perspectives. Kramer’s experience as a screenwriter (ThirtySomething, My So-Called Life) serves him well in differentiating the nuances of one character’s voice from another. No one but Ben, Wesley’s stepfather through his mother’s marriage, could begin his chapter with these words arranged in this grammatical structure: “Professionally, at least, I’m a symbolic man and only because of my field: eyes.” The changes in perspective are no gimmick but rather are essential to the telling of the narrative. For the most part, this structure works beautifully. Only two chapters, seen through the eyes of minor characters, seem at first out of place. My other quibble is with the final chapter, told in the third person, as Kramer jumps, sometimes abruptly, from George’s mind to Wesley’s. Yet even when these transitions are occasionally jarring, the dialogue sings.
These Things Happen is a compassionate novel with a heart as big as New York City. There are no villains here, only flawed human beings: culturally enlightened New Yorkers who have personal blind spots. We are more than happy to forgive Kramer’s occasional lapse into sentimentality because so much of the emotion in the book is genuine and earned. One of the most poignant scenes is when George receives a call to come to the hospital after Wesley is attacked. When he arrives and asks to see him, the receptionist asks George who he is, and George realizes there is no label for the man who is Wesley’s father’s partner. “Oh, I’m not anyone – I’m just George,” he answers. Moments like this one remind us of how in the subtlest of ways our relationships are challenged, and they give this very funny novel much of its depth. These Things Happen is a compulsively readable and affecting take on the way we live now.
These Things Happen
By Richard Kramer
Hardcover, 9781609530891, 260 pp.