Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Needing to belong


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Desert Boys by Chris McCormick; Picador, $25

Occasionally a fresh, exciting voice rings out over the cacophony of mediocrity, and one can sigh with renewed confidence in the publishing world: here is a very good writer. Such is the case with Chris McCormick in Desert Boys, his new work of fiction, a series of intertwining stories forming a world of colorful characters and a place we have not previously encountered. If you were told his setting is north of Los Angeles in Antelope Valley at a working-class town filled with strip-malls near the Mojave Desert, you might think there was little there and what existed would be forgettable. But you would be mistaken. McCormick conjures his own small universe by illuminating the family, friends, and community that have both formed and restricted him. He makes you care about prosaic, flawed people who carry their own secrets and revelations.

These tales are narrated by Daley Kushner (Kush), McCormick's introspective doppelganger, coming to terms with being gay and trying to decide whether to leave Antelope Valley. His ambivalence between wanting to stay home and get as far away as possible is reflected in the epigram introducing the book, a lyric from Jackson Browne's song "The Fairest of the Seasons." "Do I stay, or do I go? And do I have to do just one?" The first story, "Mother, Godfather, Baby, Priest," introduces the main characters, including Kush's two best friends from high school, Robert Karinger and Daniel Watts. Their exploits playing paintball in the desert become the book's chief metaphor for change in themselves and in the valley. Kush has a crush on the straight Karinger, who is aware of it but doesn't ridicule him. Karinger will marry his high school sweetheart Jackie in his last year of high school, then join the Marines, where he will be killed in Afghanistan. Jackie, pregnant, invites Kush to the baptism of their son. Kush feels guilty over an argument he had with Karinger over the war before he left. His last words to his best friend were, "Go die for nothing, asshole. I hope you do." Kush attends Berkeley and eventually moves to Oakland, but the unresolved end with Karinger hangs over his romance with Lloyd, who runs a bookshop in San Francisco.

Kush is not out to his parents: his religious Armenian mother who would probably not accept her gay son, though she is dying of cancer; and his furniture salesman father, from whom he is distant. Lloyd presses Kush to introduce him to his parents, but Kush can't summon the courage to confront his mother: "I loved my mother and I resented her, I desperately needed her and urgently I needed to rid myself of her, how impossible it was for me to imagine my life after her death and how many times I already had. Among a million things, her death meant that I would never have to introduce her to the man I loved. In equal parts, this liberated and devastated me." Being gay makes him an outsider, yet those around him accept him, especially his older sister Jean. So the decision to stay or leave is not clear-cut.

This eternal LGBT theme of the delicate balance between the desire to escape and the hunger to belong is the foundation of McCormick's collection. Does where we come from define who we are and determine our future? No easy answers are provided, but for McCormick, the passion lies in the struggle.

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