by Robert Julian
Sugarless by James Magruder; Wisconsin Press, $24.95
Before you scoff, you should know that the late Gilda Radner was an Oral Interpretation major at the University of Michigan. From such humble beginnings, great things may follow – things like a gay coming-of-age novel set in 1976 suburban Chicago. It's a novel that goes oral in a big way.
Sugarless, the first book by author James Magruder, is the story of four months in the life of young Rick Lahrem, a high school sophomore with a closeted addiction to original cast albums from Broadway musicals. In light of this fact, it almost seems logical he would be seduced into oral copulation and oral interpretation, in short order. Rick succeeds at both. Sort of.
Rick first services his neighbor Steve, who ends up becoming the boyfriend of Rick's slutty, big-titted stepsister Carla. The loss of access to Steve is assuaged by Rick's ascendancy to the top of his high school's Oral Interpretation team with a dynamite dramatic interpretation of a scene from Mart Crowley's Boys in the Band. The scene is suggested by one of Rick's high school teachers, who, at this point, intuitively understands what Rick is only beginning to realize. A more definitive and lasting revelation will occur when Rick meets Ned Bolang, a teacher from a neighboring high school and one of the judges in Rick's first oral interpretation competition.
Ned comes up to Rick in the hallway, encouraging him to stay in competition and revealing that a bigoted judge deprived him of top honors by marking his presentation down because of its subject matter. Private coaching sessions result, in Ned's apartment, and quicker than you can say "drop trou," man/boy oral copulation is the order of the day, the afternoon, and the evening. The attraction is mutual, and Rick becomes sexually obsessed with his mentor in a way only possible with 15-year-olds. The teacher becomes Rick's deity and reluctant sex slave.
Rick and Ned's affair parallels that of Carla and Steve, with the stepsiblings sneaking off to copulate compulsively with their respective lovers at every opportunity. Rick's awards keep piling up, leading him to the State of Illinois dramatic interpretation championship, while his mother and stepfather are simultaneously seduced into an evangelical Christian movement. This cannot end well.
James Magruder covers this territory with considerable aplomb, never stooping to parody or overly self-conscious irony. Rick is a real character on the page, really sexual, really confused, and in the end really sure of what he wants. He ultimately becomes so sure he is willing to fight for it in front of family, teachers, and God. He will lose the battle, and there will be considerable collateral damage, but the reader is left with the knowledge that Rick will ultimately win the war.
Magruder's prose style is engaging, and his treatment of the intergenerational same-sex affair reflects no moral judgment. This keeps the tone of the book true to his protagonist's experience, and permits readers to see beyond what would, at least superficially, seem like child molestation. At the novel's conclusion, Magruder establishes and maintains the sort of dramatic tension that will keep readers glued to the page. As Madonna might put it, Sugarless is both sweet and sticky.