by James Lecesne
Paperback, 352 pages
Published May 31st, 2016 by Feiwel & Friends
4 out of 5 stars
I am reviewing the YA novel, Absolute Brightness by James Lecesne.
The Amazing Life of Leonard Pelkey
In the late 90s, James Lecesne raised awareness about gay teen suicide. He wrote a novella that was adapted into a short film about a precocious boy who feels rejected by his family and attempts suicide - only to be rattled back to his senses by a cute candy striper at the hospital. This was back in 1998. Trevor lives. Almost as a counterpoint, in Absolute Brightness (2016),* James Lecesne tells the story of a teenager, Leonard Pelkey, who is murdered in Neptune, New Jersey.
Leonard is characterized as a nice, talkative fourteen-year-old boy. When he first arrives at his aunt's house - to move in - he is met with derision by his cousin, Phoebe, who is also the narrator of the story. Leonard seems oblivious to the fact that Phoebe does not take to lightly to his fashion decisions - pink and lime-green capri pants and a "too small T-shirt." However, for Phoebe, Leonard was "way too different." And it is this aversion to difference that Lecesne grapples with in this book.
Leonard has all the Packaging of a Gay Stereotype
While he is never outright labeled as gay, Leonard carries all the packaging of the gay male effeminate stereotype. He is characterized, in the novel, like Dorothy - "more the type to be heading toward a place like Oz, as in The Wizard of." He never gets there. And the novel turns directions.
*Spoiler Alert* - Even if you know that Leonard is killed half-way through the book, it still comes as a shock. Leonard is the most likable character in the novel. While at the same time, he is the most unnoticed. Because the novel is told from Phoebe's point-of-view - we only learn about Leonard through her jaded perception of him. Who is Leonard when not seen through Phoebe's eyes?
Who is the Real Leonard Pelkey?
That's the thematic lesson of the novel. We do not come to know Leonard until it's too late. In the novel's first half, Leonard telegraphs joy, but no one appreciates it. When we see him in joyful moments - for example, hanging out with his aunt's clients at the beauty salon, or when he is excited to try out for the school production of the Tempest - there is an undertone of sadness. His mother has died, and his biological father is absent. His step-father cannot - or will not - raise him. The school's theater teacher takes a liking to him, but when he goes missing half-way through the novel, there is a reluctance to acknowledge his disappearance. Or to do anything about it.
It is only much much later that Phoebe, who we learn is having her own coming-of-age, comes to understand that she did not know Leonard the way she could have known him. After his disappearance, she goes through his things and finds a map of the American Museum of Natural History. She wonders if she really knew him and why did she not know that he was interested in natural history? It is a moment when Phoebe questions her own hard-line attitude on life - wasn't Leonard just this bombastic kid who wore artificially bright colors and was "way different"? How can that difference segue into an alternative narrative about a boy who may have liked science, or heck - may not have fit into the neatly defined tropes Phoebe had set up for him?
How Assumptions Make You an Ass (out of you and me)
My mother used to say, "When you make assumptions you make an ass out of you and me." Lecesne is attaching heterosexist assumptions sometimes made about those who do not fit into their own heterosexual normative model. We never get to know Leonard because he has already been filled in like a paint-by-numbers schematic. In this way, his death leaves him even more of a cipher. Lecesne pushes this idea further by suggesting that it is our assumptions that disavow us from having any true knowledge of others. Awkwardly, the idea is brought up in the novel that "black people don't blush" - which seems to be Lecesnes way of saying that we don't look closely enough. Perhaps by "we", he is thinking about Phoebe, about Travis, about the supposedly heterosexual denizens of the Jersey Shore.
Intolerance to Difference Leads to Violence
We do learn that Travis killed Leonard. Travis is the boy whom Phoebe likes. In fact, she even kisses Travis earlier in the novel to demonstrate her heterosexuality. And to set her apart from Leonard - and to protect herself from being called a lesbian. It is a problematic narrative strand in the novel because it sets up the story's denouement. Travis kills Leonard. We don't really find out why. We find out many details. It was nighttime. Travis "was driving around" with another boy - Curtis - and they pick up Leonard - after spotting him walking along the roadside alone - to take him on their joy ride. They all end up at a local watering hole where they skinny dip. It is all seemingly good-natured fun - but something happens - a word is said - something transpires - "... allegedly, Travis muttered, 'Fucking faggot'" - according to Curtis's testimony at the trial. Travis had pummeled Leonard with a rock - and the two boys - in a grisly sequence of events dispose of Leonard's body into the Shark River.
In the events leading up to his death, Leonard was rehearsing for the school play The Tempest. He was to play the part of Ariel - and his teacher had told him to wear ankle weights so that on opening night he could remove the weights and be able to alight on the stage in an airy spritely way. It is an innocuous detail - but one that takes on a shocking realization when you realize that Leonard's body was sunk into the water with those weights. What if Leonard were still alive when Curtis and Travis threw him into the water? The weight of the brace would have completely taken him down - even if he had suddenly come into consciousness.
It is this final detail that shows us the malevolence of the murder. The boys, it is suggested, did not care enough whether Leonard lived or died. And this - this - is the point of the novel. Grisly as it sounds. In a straight world, gay people are better left dead. Or anyone deemed different. If they are alive, straight people tolerate their existence in the same manner Phoebe thinly tolerates Leonard. But hey. If they happen to get hurt, hit by a rock, or anything tragic of that sort - discard of the body - whether they are half-alive or not.
Lecesne decides to have Phoebe visit Travis in jail. This is how the novel ends. Phoebe decides that if there is any humanity left in herself - or in Travis - then it is her duty to mete that out. It is a complicated ending - suggesting that those who are the perpetrators of a crime can be the one who can come out radically changed at the end.
I am Not Sure if I liked the Book's Ending
How do I feel reading another gay problem novel that leads a character dead? Not so good. Especially when I did not know this was how the story would end. But maybe Lecesne is right. What have we done for the Tyler Clementis of this world? What have we done for the young people, like Trayvon Martin, and Matthew Shepherd - all killed for their difference - being black, being gay, wearing a hoodie, wearing rainbow-colored shoes.
If the absolute brightness of the novel is the goodness we are too blinded to see - then I have to say that in this novel Lecesene points to us all as culpable. But I am not too sure how many will get it. I read reviews on Goodreads that suggested readers think Phoebe is friends with Leonard. Or that the novel has too many diversions. I understand what the novel is supposed to be - I just hope those readers who read it will get it too.
Stray Observations (I stole that line from the A.V. Club)
- Lecesne, first, did a one-man show of Absolute Brightness. In it, I noticed that Lecesne is a storyteller - and he is able to pull off all the characters in the book!
- Who would play Leonard in a film adaptation? Post your guesses in the comments.
- I could talk about intersectionality in this book - it is a story about a white boy in a middle-class neighborhood - people of color are nary mentioned.
- However, Lecesne story's is relevant and we should be shook. Hate Crimes against L.G.B.T.Q people is the highest among all minority groups.
* I read the 2016 version of the story - the novel was first published in 2008 - the earlier version is a bit longer, by comparison.