Monday, June 6, 2016

Review: Wake Me Up

Wake Me Up Wake Me Up by Justin Bog
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have known Justin Bog since before he was a Justin or a Bog, and it’s a moving experience to read this novel for a glimpse at the kid I knew before I had any real sense of what it meant for someone to be gay. I was generally clueless about the possibility that something like that could inform someone’s identity, and I was certainly clueless about the pain people like protagonist Chris Bullet went through.

And it is a great deal of pain, literal pain, that Chris experiences. It’s no spoiler to say that he’s brutally attacked by four boys on suspicion of being gay. We learn as much in the first several pages, and – hard as it is to read the scene – it seems appropriate. This novel works in part by making homophobia into a real and palpable thing; it takes that hatred, puts it on the faces of four boys (one, in particular, an almost tolerant kid who’s frightened by the thought that he might be mistaken for being a homosexual himself), and then transfers all that hatred and fear to a baseball bat. It’s real, and we’re all struck by it.

From there, the novel proceeds to am intriguing omniscient narrative device: Chris, comatose, becomes aware of all that is happening and of all that has happened to him. It’s a tangled story. His mother is a poet dealing with the early stages of multiple sclerosis. His father has recently had an affair, and has a pregnant estranged lover. His grandfather is a serial philanderer and absent parent, and the town of Middleton, Montana itself is grappling with an intolerance it hasn’t fully acknowledged.

The novel leaves us with the ‘what-will-happen’ tension of whether Chris will survive, but its real crisis is the degree to which Chris will arrive at an understanding of the world in which he finds himself. He is a victim; there is, sadly, no denying that. But the larger question is ‘what is he a victim of?’ His attackers, certainly. His parents, maybe. They’ve loved him without always understanding him, but they’ve also dealt with their own difficulties. The community itself, probably. There’s little understanding of or sympathy for difference – we’re reminded a few times, for instance, that Montana has no hate crime statute for homophobic attacks. But a community is large and amorphous. There are police officers, doctors, and nurses who help without understanding or who try to understand without quite recognizing the scope of the problem.

Chris moves beyond a mere sense of victimhood, though, in his attempt to understand others. His meditations on the one attacker, Ellis, carry a real poignancy. He sees a kid he thought he was friends with. Yes, he was attracted to him, but so-what to that? Heterosexual kids are attracted to each other all the time, and it doesn’t generally lead to these sorts of hatred and fear. Yet Chris does have some patience for Ellis’s confusion. There’s no excusing the ugly violence he perpetrates, no justification for an unambiguous evil, but there are glimpses of a frightened boy beneath them. Chris’s capacity for seeing that – as well as for seeing the decent urges beneath the indecent actions of everyone from his grandfather (the “Chess King”) to the inept psychiatrist caring for his father – lets him take one step toward a tolerance for others that’s too often denied him.

This is not a light read, but it is an important one. There are kids like Chris growing up even today, kids who are bewildered about being themselves in front of their communities and potential friends. I hope I was a good friend to Justin in the days we were kids together. Reading this, it’s a privilege to see the man he’s become.

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