Casey Charles reads from The Monkey Cages Sat., July 14, at 1 PM at Shakespeare & Co. Free.
Ah, teenage romance in the West: spending late summer nights at the park, driving on mountain roads to skinny dip in the river, slipping notes about secret meet-ups in your crush’s pocket.
But then there’s gay teenage romance in 1950s Idaho and things get a bit more complicated: hiding who you are from friends and family, trying to find out exactly how you fit into the world and the outrageous sex scandal and trial that outs you to a worked-up community and changes the course of your life.
That’s the world of The Monkey Cages, a new novel by University of Montana professor Casey Charles. It’s at once a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age story, a steamy romance novel and a trial procedural — all centered around 16-year-old Tommy “Caddy” Cadigan, an earnest queer kid who’s just trying to find his way in an unwelcoming world.
Tommy is, above all, a normal high school kid. He’s got a girlfriend, he’s on the football team, he worries that he’s not quite buff enough or cool enough. But he’s also grappling with his homosexuality in a less than ideal time and place. And he’s far from alone in his world. His best friend, Freddie, is also gay, as is the star of the football team, Kurt, and his coach, Marty. But what should be a normal teenage summer spirals out of control, first when Kurt pulls Tommy into hustling in Boise’s central park, then when he catches Freddie’s father soliciting gay sex, then when he falls in love with his 25-year-old football coach and starts an affair that’s dangerous for a couple of reasons.
Charles is certainly the man to write this book. A teacher of both English literature and queer studies, he’s also written extensively about the history of gay rights — and he’s a former trial lawyer to boot. He tackles this story with thoughtfulness, humor and speed, and does an admirable job of making what could be an extremely depressing and disheartening read about growing up during the Lavender Scare enjoyable and even fun.
The book sometimes feels like it has an issue with tone. One page can be a sexy romp that borders on whatever the gay male version of bodice-ripper is, while the next is pretty dark and even technical. Then again, those shifts probably reflect what it must have been like to live in a time (which we haven’t nearly left yet) where who and how you love, even at its most innocent, is at best a citywide scandal and at worst illegal.
The other roadbump of the book is the central relationship between a minor and an adult, and the related issue of consent. Since the book is told in first-person from Tommy’s point of view, it’s hard to get a big-picture view of his relationship with his teacher. While the complexities of the situation are explored, the reader is sometimes left feeling a bit uncomfortable — not about queer relationships, but about other taboo relationships that might be taboo for a pretty good reason (and, hey, maybe that’s exactly what the author wants the reader to feel). We trust that the narrator understands his feelings, and is on his way to being an adult, but it’s hard to ignore that he is ultimately not there yet.
Overall, though, the book succeeds. It has the hot, sexy moments of Brokeback Mountain, the thoughtful queer coming-of-age moments of Annie on my Mind and the inner exploration of Rubyfruit Jungle. It also has at its center a really wonderful friendship between Tommy and Freddie, filled with love and complexity and empathy and fun. Male friendships written with that much care are as hard to come by as male romantic relationships in literature — and Charles does both with grace.