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Tom Ryan’s first novel, Way to Go (Orca Book Publishers), is not the sex comedy its publicity materials would have you to believe. Instead, the book presents a classic bildungsroman—that is, a conventional coming-of-age story. While the protagonist attempts to negotiate his romantic feelings for men throughout the narrative, his closeted homosexuality serves as a less significant part of the story than his attempts to sort out his post-high school plans. Because of these mixed conflicts, the novel suffers from plot and characterization problems, and yet has an earnest emotional pull that makes some chapters surprisingly rewarding.
The first barrier of entry into the novel is the cliché supporting cast. Ryan surrounds his protagonist and narrator—the seventeen-year-old Danny—with an expansive band of under-written characters. The most disappointing of these are Danny’s family members: his former-hippie mother, his hard-working and aggressive father, and his little sister, who feels the incessant need to quote old movies; she wants to be an actress, you see, and one can assume that Ryan means for her to be comic relief. Unfortunately, quoting Casablanca has never been all that charming.
Danny’s friends are not much better, including Jay, the “relaxed” guy who might not pass high school; Kierce, the homophobic know-it-all hockey player; and Lisa, the newly arrived exotic transplant from New York City who has a penchant for making mixed tapes and toying with the locals’ affections. The problem with these characters is not so much their superficial distinctions, but that they rarely transcend those distinctions.
Fortunately, Danny receives a more satisfying portrayal. His insecurity is palpable, both during his attempts to feign hetero-normative behaviors—like making-out with girls at parties—and his anxiety about what he should do with his life. He has very few ideas about what he wants for his future. Should he attend university? Could he possibly make himself straight by attempting to date girls, like the bubbly and forward Lisa? Will he have to move away from his family and the Nova Scotia Town of his childhood to be the gay man he knows he is? Does he have the courage to tell his parents about his sexuality? These are common questions, but as Danny narrates the novel, the reader becomes privy to his inner strife. Because closeted gay teens suffer such deep inner discord, the first-person narration is a smart choice on the author’s part.
However, Danny’s sexual identity feels more like an over-emphasized B-plot because the novel never does much with the emotional baggage surrounding the topic. Danny attempts to “de-gay” himself to no avail, and after a few attempts to date girls, the plotline goes dead. Most coming-out novels keep such a storyline driving forward by introducing a love-interest (i.e. the hot new guy in town), but Ryan never goes there. As a result, the novel downplays Danny’s sexual anxieties about halfway through in favor of exploring his love for cooking. From then on, the book ceases to be solely a coming-out story, and instead opens up to being a coming-of-age tale about a young man discovering his passions.
The novel comes alive in the passages when Danny learns to cook after being hired as a dishwasher for the summer at a local restaurant. The chef takes the boy under his wing, and Danny’s narration becomes more enlivened as he explores the joys of cooking. The last half of the novel benefits from this energy, and it is this newly discovered passion that brings the characters alive around the protagonist. Danny’s interest in attending cooking school animates his otherwise dull parents as well. Surprised by their son’s new interest, they are allowed to speak for themselves, rather than act as vehicles for explication. Though the reader hopefully desires that Danny find comfort with his sexuality, it is clearly more important that he follow his dream of becoming a chef. By pursuing his dream in a big city, he will likely lead himself to both creative and romantic freedom.
Way to Go is not the right novel for a reader looking for a tale about sex and love. However, if a reader is looking for a story about self-discovery and pursuing one’s talents, Danny’s journey may yield rewards. Ryan’s book wanders aimlessly between questions about Danny’s professional and romantic future, and that lack of direction does not always make for the best storytelling. However, there is something amiable and genuine about its confusion. Much like Danny, the novel only knows where to go half of the time. There is not a more accurate metaphor for the teenage experience than that, and it would be difficult to not find such uncertainty at least a little charming.
Way to Go
By Tom Ryan
Orca Book Publishers
Paperback, 9781459800779, 224 pp.