I was deep behind enemy lines, in the very heart of the enemy camp. So begins the story of Russel, the teenage protagonist of the new novel, Geography Club, written by Brent Hartinger. This is no spy novel, and Russel isn't talking about espionage, but he is in a situation that's almost as dangerous: he's gay and naked in the locker room after high school P.E.
At age sixteen, Russel has finally had it with lurking around in the periphery of life. Desperate to make contact with other gay kids, he hooks up with an online gay chat buddy–who turns out to be none other than baseball jock Kevin Land. Before long, Russel and Kevin ferret out other local gay kids as well, including Russel's friend Min, who reveals she's bisexual, and Min's soccer-playing girlfriend, Terese.
Problem is, they're not yet ready to tell the rest of the school they're gay. So how do kids this diverse spend time together without calling attention to themselves? Russel's–and Hartinger's–answer is as ingenious as it is witty: they form an after-school club that sounds so boring no one else would ever think to join–the Geography Club. But, of course, this being high school, things are never as simple as they seem. Soon Russel and his friends are learning plenty about geography after all–specifically, the clique-conscious landscape of a typical American high school.
Hartinger's deft debut novel comes as a welcome relief from the overwrought, humorless gay teen novels of the past. The book is funny, especially when Russel tries to avoid the charms of an overly persistent female admirer (Her tongue was like a raw oyster with a mind of its own!).
But this is also a novel with heart, particularly when the gay kids eventually clash over the question of whether or not to reach out to the school outcast who is rumored to be gay. And I defy any gay man not to be moved by the heart-pounding romance that builds between Russel and Kevin.
The quality of gay books with teenager protagonists is notoriously spotty. That said, Geography Club may be the best gay teen book ever.
Excerpt from Chapter 1
It was well past dark when I arrived at the playfield where we’d agreed to meet. I locked my bike and scanned the area, but I didn’t see anyone. There weren’t any cars in the parking lot either. The air was cool and wet, and I was shivering even under a heavy jacket, but it wasn’t just from the cold.
Then I saw him. There’s a picnic gazebo on the far side of the field, which borders a dense swampy area. Under the gazebo, a dark figure sat hunched atop a picnic table. Even as I spotted him, he seemed to see me too. He slipped off the table, stepping forward, still in the shadows, but peering out into the darkness.
The moon was behind some soggy clouds, so I couldn’t see him clearly, and he couldn’t see me. In other words, I could still back out. I could unlock my bike, climb aboard, and pedal away, and he’d never have known who I was. But I knew I wasn’t going to. I’d already come too far.
I started across the field. It had been raining a lot lately, and the grass had flooded. The mud sucked at my tennis shoes, cold water seeping into my socks.
Who was it under that picnic gazebo? I could tell from his slightly slackened posture that it really was a high school student–but who? What if it was Gunnar? No, it was probably Brian Bund. What would I do then? I couldn’t very well just turn my back on him and leave.
I passed a children’s play area to one side of the field–two sets of rusted metal monkey bars, one in the shape of a covered wagon, the other in the shape of a tepee, in the middle of a patch of flooded sand.
The figure in the gazebo hadn’t made any movement toward me, but he hadn’t backed away either. He just stood there watching me. The only thing more fitting would have been if he’d been smoking a cigarette and wearing a dark overcoat.
This was stupid. I’d talked to dozens of gay teenagers on the Internet. I’d told them I was gay. What was the difference? But even as I thought this, I knew the difference, and it was big. This was real.
I was less than thirty feet from the gazebo now. The methane stench from the swamp was foul, and I couldn’t imagine anyone ever actually having a picnic here. A few more feet, and we’d be able to see each other clearly. I was risking everything, but for what I wasn’t sure. All I knew is that I’d been undercover for far too long. It was time to finally make contact.
Taking a deep breath, I sloshed the rest of the way across the grass, stepped into the gazebo, and found myself staring into the dark, bristled face of Kevin Land.
© Brent Hartinger, All Rights Reserved. Web Link: http://www.brenthartinger.com/