A Book and a Boy that Defy Categorization: A Review of Abigail Tarttelin’s Golden Boy By Eva Langston

Photo of Lou Henry Hoover

The day after I finished reading Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin, my boyfriend and I went to a burlesque show hosted by Ben DeLaCreme, one of the stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season Six.

Ben trotted around on stage in sparkly outfits, wigs, and six-inch platform shoes, and I was delighted.  I understand drag queens. They are gay men who have adopted the personas of fabulous, female divas, and they’re mainstream enough these days to have had six seasons of reality television created all about them.

What I didn’t understand quite so well was Ben’s helper in the performance, Lou. Lou was small and spry with a short crew cut, a glittery mustache, and a masculine neck tattoo. He came onto the stage in a silver unitard, showing off a rather large bulge in the crotch area, and yet, with his narrow shoulders and delicate features, I was pretty sure Lou was female.

“I want Lou to do a striptease,” Paul whispered to me. “So I can see what exactly is going on.”

“Yeah, me too.”  I was pretty sure Lou was female and wearing a chest-flattening sports bra, but I wanted confirmation.

“I feel bad,” Paul said after a moment.  “I keep focusing on all the feminine features of Lou and all the masculine features of Ben.”

“It’s like your brain is trying to understand what category they belong in.” I knew because my brain was doing the same thing.

And then I thought of Golden Boy, and suddenly I understood why it is such an important book.

Golden Boy is an impressive debut novel.  Written by a twenty-five-year-old Brit (oh, how I’m jealous!), the prose exudes the confidence of a seasoned writer and deals with the ballsy topic (no pun intended) of a boy who is intersex.

In case you don’t know (I didn’t before reading the book), “intersex” refers to people born with genetic and/or physical characteristics that make it impossible for them to be distinctly categorized as male or female. In Golden Boy, the main character, sixteen-year-old Max Walker, identifies as a boy, but he has both male and female genitalia. Unlike many parents of hermaphrodite children, his parents did not opt for surgery at infancy to turn him fully into one sex or the other.

Of course, no one except for his parents and a few family friends know Max’s secret, and no one ever talks about it.  Max himself even manages to forget, most of the time, that he’s not “normal.”  On the outside, he is the “golden boy”:  attractive, popular, nice, smart.  Girls swoon over his floppy blond hair and smooth, pretty-boy face.  He’s a good student, star soccer player, and role model to his younger brother, Daniel.

But things are about to change.  The book begins with the shocking and heartbreaking scene of Max being physically violated.  In the aftermath of the attack, he is forced, in the most brutal of ways, to face the facts about his sexuality.  While Max is dealing with his mounting secrets, Max’s father decides to run for government office, putting the family under more public scrutiny.  Max’s mother is terrified that the family secret might be revealed, and Max tries, with less and less success, to keep his secrets from Sylvie, the girl he is falling in love with.

The book begins with a bang and continues in a strong, emotional arc as Max struggles to understand himself and his body.  I found myself reading eagerly, wanting to know what Max would decide to do and what would happen to his relationship with Sylvie.  Max’s story was griping.

What was not so griping were the stories of Max’s mother and brother.  For reasons that are not quite clear, Tarttelin chose to tell the story of Max from six different first- person narratives.  The story switches perspectives from Max to Sylvie to Daniel to Max’s mother to Max’s new doctor.  After a while, however, the doctor’s perspective mostly disappears, and we never get much about her personal life, so it seems like she is given a narrative thread for the sole purpose of explaining some of the more technical aspects of Max’s condition.

Also confusing is why Tarttelin chose to give narrative power to all of the Walker family members except for Max’s father.  And yet, in the last pages of the book, Steven Walker is finally given a few small sections of his own first-person narrative.  Unfortunately, Steven’s voice (though not his opinions) is awfully similar to Karen’s voice, and to the doctor’s voice as well.

Although these characters are obviously important, the story is all about Max’s emotional journey, and it might have been better to keep the novel’s narrative solely in his perspective.  I found Daniel’s sections – often about video games and spats at school – to be boring and almost irrelevant. I often skimmed Daniel’s and Karen’s sections, eager to get back to Max and Sylvie, who were, to me, the real heart of the story.

Golden Boy was a 2014 recipient of the Alex Award, which is given to adult books that have special appeal for kids ages twelve to eighteen.  And yet, I wonder why Golden Boy is categorized as an adult book and not Young Adult.  Max’s voice, his relationship with Sylvie, and his angsty (and sometimes overlong) inner monologues really seem like YA material.  Was the book labeled adult because of the subject matter, or because of the sections of adult narrative?  If Tarttelin had written solely from Max’s perspective, would the novel have been labeled YA?  Maybe, like Max, Golden Boy is both genres – or neither.  It can’t be categorized.

And unfortunately, this could mean it won’t be read by enough people because it doesn’t clearly fall into a category.  And I highly recommend that both adults and young adults read Golden Boy.  Not only is it fascinating and well-written, it also examines in a new and important way the age-old struggle of a square peg trying to fit into society’s round hole. (Again, no pun intended).

At times while reading, I found myself wondering why Max didn’t just go along with the doctors’ recommendations to do all the necessary surgeries to make him “totally boy.” Wouldn’t that make things so much easier for him and his relationship with Sylvie?

 

And yet, the point Tarttelin is trying to make is that Max shouldn’t have to alter his body just because he doesn’t fit into society’s mold.  Why should Max have to go through invasive surgeries (that would render him infertile), hormone treatments, and prosthetics (including a pair of fake testicles)? Why can’t Max just be who he is, in the body he was born with?

The reason, according to the doctors, is because if he doesn’t, society won’t know what to do with him. Just look at me and Paul. We like to think of ourselves as relatively open-minded, accepting people, and yet there we were at the burlesque show, desperate to place Lou into a category. We couldn’t accept his/her ambiguity. We wanted, in fact, for Lou to strip down and show us, once and for all, whether he was all boy or all girl.  What would we have done if he was both, or neither?

Towards the end of the show, in fact, Ben DeLaCreme announced that Lou was going to come out and do a striptease.  “Yay, just what we wanted,” Paul and I said.

Lou danced onto the stage in trousers and suspenders, lip-syncing to a crazy, old Bo Carter song with the lyrics “let me put my banana in your fruit basket and I’ll be satisfied.”  When Lou took off his clothes, he was wearing a flesh-colored body suit underneath with a fig leaf painted on the crotch.  The joke was that we’d never really know.

And the point of Golden Boy is that it shouldn’t matter what Lou has between his/her legs.  Well, no, not exactly.  It does matter.  Sex and sexuality matter greatly, and one of the mistakes Max’s parents made was trying to ignore Max’s situation and pretend like it wasn’t a big deal.

What truly shouldn’t matter is the category.  Where we make the mistake is in insisting that everyone belongs in one group or the other.  In an interview with Goodreads, Tarttelin says about the novel, “I could explore gender through the eyes of someone who had no need to define themselves as either male or female, but was pressured to do so by their family and community”. She placed Max in “‘average’ community and a loving family” because “I often feel characters with alternative genders and sexualities are treated as outsiders in art, when in fact they are us, and they belong inside our communities. I wanted Golden Boy to take place in a town that readers could see as their own town”.

Her book is a plea to society:  let Max be Max and Lou be Lou.  Stop trying to strip them down, examine them, and force them into a category.  It’s hard for us to understand sometimes, but we have to work on accepting people and loving them for exactly who they are.

 

About Eva Langston

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