True Letters from a Fictional Life
Consuming fiction makes us social scientists better writers, better thinkers. We learn how to put together words in new ways, and we learn new worlds. We remember that writing—all writing—should not just make us think, it should make us feel. It should feel more important than sleep—at least sometimes.
LGBTQ young adult literature is just one of the many art and popular culture forms these days that helps young queer kids grow up with a community, that keeps them company as they move through their days, that informs identity-development and self-concept building. It is a critical form of visibility and support for young people who identify or who may be questioning their identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or anything else along the sexuality and gender spectrum.
Which brings us to Kenneth Logan’s creative and beautiful True Letters from a Fictional Life and to James Liddel. James is a high-school junior living in Vermont. He is a soccer player and a runner, and he has a group of mostly jock friends who he leans on in his small town. He has two brothers and a mom and a dad who hover awkwardly around the edges of his social life but who do not dive in. James is smart and engaged in school; he is a caring brother; and he is seemingly one half of a power couple with the beautiful Theresa, his “sort-of girlfriend” who has been in love with him since they were kids.
James Liddel also has a crush on his teammate and close friend, Tim Hawken. After a number of beers, James confesses his crush to Tim while they are on a walk in the snowy Vermont night. His friend does not return his feelings but is flattered and seems completely cool with being the object of James’ crush. Tim himself has an older brother who is gay and is fully out to his family. Tim proves himself to be not just tolerant but a true, authentic ally to James every step of the way.
James also has a hobby, mirroring a practice of Abraham Lincoln’s he’d read about and adopted as his own: writing letters to people in his life that he never intends to send. These late-night musings and rants are a way of venting and of keeping a bit of distance from the people in his life. James keeps these in a locked desk drawer in his room. It is in these letters that he confesses his crushes on boys, that he tells off his friends, that he comes out to his parents, and that he begs God to turn him straight.
There is one mostly-out gay boy in James’ school, Aaron Foster. Aaron confirms every stereotype his classmates have of gay men and is the object of regular, relentless bullying and some serious homophobic violence. The suffering that Aaron endures goes over and above the casual homophobia that fills the weight rooms and fields of the school, the casual homophobia that is so problematically normalized that it meets with complete silence by teachers and coaches.
In contrast to Aaron, no one knows or suspects that the gender-conforming, athletic, girlfriend-having James likes boys. James’ parents keep a picture of their son and Theresa on their fridge. James is presumed and celebrated as straight. His guy friends have an easy affection with one another, but they think of it completely platonically. Tim urges James to break free of these expectations and assumptions and to come out. He says he’ll be there with James every step of the way, but he does not push. And he does not reveal James’ secret.
At a party with a friend from another school, James locks eyes with a cute boy, Topher. They meet and talk, and James learns that Topher is out at his school and has had a boyfriend there. Topher inquires about Theresa, and James responds in a way that makes it clear that he may like boys more than he likes her. The two also learn that they share a favorite book: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Topher asks James on a non-date date, a nighttime hike and picnic that include terrible snacks but adorable handholding.
James and Topher begin hanging out, both in the wonderful Vermont wilderness and with their friends in public, and James shares his first kiss with a boy. We learn that Topher is an actor, currently playing the lead in a community production of Hamlet. He also is a former hockey player but quit after a gruesome bullying incident on the ice.
At a small gathering at James’ house, when it is clear to his close-knit (and nosy) group of friends that there is something between James and Topher, some of James’ carefully guarded letters go missing. What’s worse, they start showing up in his friends’ mailboxes. With the revelations they contain, James is forced to face up to his relationships and, ultimately, to come out—and not on his terms or timeline. James and the people closest to him fumble through, sometimes in heartbreaking ways, sometimes in revelatory ones. His older brother’s response—“I don’t give a shit. . . . You freaking moron”—somehow seems perfect.
True Letters from a Fictional Life works to raise the visibility of a diverse group of LGBTQ young people. James is from a small town. He’s not a city boy with a ready gay community to come out to. He is also a jock on a major team sport. Logan’s first novel also joins a small, emerging cannon of LGBTQ YA about young, gay, male athletes, including Bill Konigsberg’s Out of the Pocket and Mia Siegert’s Jerkbait, about football and hockey players, respectively. It is the most artfully done of the bunch.
The book is beautifully written, and stunningly set in the hills of Vermont. It works well as a piece of literature, with a compelling story that is well told in an authentic teen voice. It’s one of those books that will remind you why you read and happily keep you up at night.