The good son: Neel Patel's 'Tell Me How To Be'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday February 22, 2022
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Author Neel Patel
Author Neel Patel

Akash, the protagonist of Neel Patel's debut novel, Tell Me How To Be (Flatiron Books), ralphs at important family gatherings, behavior that evinces a certain sincerity in a clan infested with secrets.

An early-twenty-something Indian American (but, importantly for all concerned, American-born, such as that hyphen is still allowed) gay man not yet out to his living relatives, he's a fuck-up in ways you could never imagine his creator being.

The first words from both of them form the novel's opening sentence: "My mother always told me to be a good boy. I suspect she knew that I wasn't." So we know that a central theme of the book will be not merely the expectation that this Indian American boy will be, not just suitable, but the best little boy in the world—but more the impossibility, the tyranny of that cultural vise.

The title, too, signals that the novel will be smart, that its meanings will be peeled back like the layers of an onion on their way to successive stages of browning in a heavy curry. From first glance, "Tell Me How To Be," which is among other things a song title (Akash is a wannabe song-writer), has a dissonant echo like that of What Belongs to You, which of course is about what doesn't.

The segment of the novel's target readership comprised of post-Indian-diaspora Asian Americans facing new, generation-specific, stigma-based obstacles will likely feel seen. Akash doesn't just field derision from his Illinois lower-school classmates for his effeminate brownness. He is thrown into a dumpster after a pommeling.

"Their fists felt like bricks warmed under the hot sun," Patel writes. "The world around me, the school banner, the football field, the parking lot, the rows of tight square homes on the periphery, grew weak in the waning light. I could hear the peals of their laughter, followed by a calm, restorative silence. But silence is often the beginning of worse things."

The dumpster is up next in the telling, but that last sentence could stand as a statement of the novel's real theme.

It's territory Patel explored in his earlier short-story collection, If You See Me, Don't Say Hi. He has fulfilled its promise with the immaculate, expert writing of Tell Me. It is told in interleaved chapters in the distinct voices of Akash and his mother, Renu, who share only a confessional bent in their respective confidences to the reader.

The setup is that it is the anniversary of the death of his father and her husband, and there will be both a puja, for the community, and a messier reunion of the nuclear family before Renu sells the luxurious family house to return to London, where she was born. We slowly learn that Akash arrives from L.A. having just blown up his relationship with a slightly older daddy type, and his brother, Bijal, is on the lam from a just-broken marriage.

Patel masterfully keeps all the plates in the air, with stories of past trials unfurling within clearly delineated current dilemmas. Oddly, the dear departed pater familias emerges as the most sympathetic character, ever willing to overlook everything he doesn't understand about his loved ones— and to look the other way after his stumbling discovery of Akash's gayness, the better to protect Renu. Her sections reveal an undeniable homophobia, but it is another achievement of this book that Patel does not make her a stereotypical tiger of an Asian mother.

Regrettably, the plot has more dodges than twists, culminating in a deus ex machina ending several degrees too tidy. Secondary characters make entrances and exits to move the story along but provide only passing diversions. They're stuck with names that don't easily stick in the memory, but in the case of Parth, Akash's childhood crush (the unique pains of first gay love are superbly well handled), the present-day, adult gay male reader will forgive all, since he's equal parts hot and plausible. Their alcohol-fueled final tryst is, if not quite a happy ending, the payment on a debt Patel owes the reader.

As it is throughout the book, the sex and all matters genital are veiled if not strictly chaste. Akash's active alcoholism is one of the wrinkles in his character that goes farthest to remove him from the confines of stereotype. But for all the realistic touches Patel provides, it all but evaporates when it is no longer necessary to nudge the plot along. Akash cuts back on the booze with unconvincing ease, and the cat-and-mouse game he plays with it (at a gay bar called The Rawhide) in the fevered reunion with Parth is the worst kind of will-he-or-won't-he narrative tease.

Patel has set clear boundaries on his story and, for better and worse, respects them. He now has a rather over-long novel behind him.

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