Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Blue on blue


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Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal; Kensington Books, $15

Blue Jesus by Tom Edwards; Academy Chicago Publishers, $16.95

Two novels about special boys who are either born or want to become blue share a level of depth and quality in the growing subgenre of preteen gay fiction. Each involves distinctly divergent religious faiths, Hindu and fundamentalist Christian. Both novels are narrated with marvelous detail, wit, and intelligence by precocious sissy-boy narrators. The plots of both books lead toward theatrical and disastrous finales that combine drama, tragedy and humor with a deft touch.

Rakesh Satyal's Blue Boy proves the unspoken truth that children are usually crueler than adults, especially to each other. In 1992, 12-year-old Kiran Sharam stealthfully applies his mother's make-up in his parents' bathroom in their suburban home in Cincinnati. Friendless and harangued by just about everyone, from white kids to the older teen members of his small Hindu church, the boy has one determined goal among his obsessions with ballet and fashion: to be the most fabulous performer at his school talent show. No amount of previous failure slows his determination.

Caught by his mother during one of his stealth makeovers, an abruptly blurted excuse results in a goal. He decides to convince himself that he is the blue-faced god Krishna reincarnated. Kiran secretly indulges in delusions of grandeur while designing costumes for the talent show. His sketches draw the eye of one teacher, but his hopes of having his simple artwork displayed in a school showcase are dismissed by a resentful art teacher who cites religious imagery as problematic.

Satyal's Kiran has a near X-ray vision when detecting the bitter resentments of adults and older teens, and the venom beneath their formalities. His flair for portraying the assimilationist and traditional Indian culture clashes of a suburban Ohio family, and the accumulating vengeance of a preteen gay boy bent on fabulous success or vainglorious destruction, make Blue Boy an emotional thriller contained in a small vessel.

With a completely different style, syntax and faith, Tom Edwards' Blue Jesus strikes similar territory with the all-seeing hyperaware preteen narrator, Buddy Dean. Like Blue Boy's Kiran, Buddy's dreams extend far from his mountain home, through the pages of Hollywood magazines purloined at the grocery store, and somewhere into the glamour of sho

w business. What Buddy doesn't expect is that show business will come to him, in the form of his blue-tinted friend.

Buddy's daily abuse hurled from his frequently drunk widower father and roughhousing older brother might fall into cliche. Yet Edwards keeps the wit and tragic elements at an even keel, mostly through his grandmother character, the dignified heart of the broken family in Comfort Corners, Georgia. Edwards guides us through the hokey Southern Gothic homespun world with a sweet perspective.

The "blue boy" in this novel is Earl Lee Finch, nicknamed Early, the youngest son of a clan of "Blues," people with a skin disorder that causes a blue complexion. Considered retarded by most others, Early befriends the equally outcast Buddy when they are youngsters, and an uneasy yet growing bond develops when Buddy feels Early channeling the memory of Buddy's dead mother.

When the boys discover a dead infant in a bucket at the local dump, and Early revives it with special powers – given, he says, as a gift from God – events snowball from gossip to rumors to local newspaper stories. Soon a flock of strangers and their cult-like obsession bring Early's father to a predictable level of greedy opportunism.

A large-scale revival in which Early is expected to heal an entire flock becomes the anticipated debacle, with hypocritical Christians drumming up an over-the-top spectacle of manger props and flying doves. Early's demand that Black, White and "Blue" church choirs perform together makes the book's message of confronting racism more than clear. Who becomes the victim (i.e., Christ symbol) ends up with a surprising twist. But like most good fiction of this sort, the finale was revealed at the prologue.

In both Blue Jesus and Blue Boy, you know from the beginning that a small-scale event will be told with operatic proportion as seen through the eyes of such young narrators. Part of the joy in both these fine books is remembering the world as they do, when such little events shook worlds, when a tiny moment was an apocalypse.

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