Get Over It: Tacoma author Brent Hartinger wants gay teens to have the 'boring, ordinary' sweetness of life.
Author Brent Hartinger gives gay teens a model
By Gretchen Giles
Tacoma author Brent Hartinger writes books and plays for young adults, such teen lit as The Last Chance Texaco and a popular science-fiction series. But what might set Hartinger apart from other novelists aiming at a younger audience is that, as a middle-aged gay man, Hartinger writes about young gay men. Oh, and young bisexual women. And avowedly straight best friends. And homosexual sex at summer camp. And bisexual sex at summer camp. But mostly, he writes about the lonely gift of being different.
Professing not to like young children ("They annoy me"), Hartinger prefers adolescents, even promising that if a young adult who attends one of his readings can sincerely tell him to his face that it wasn't enjoyable, he'll pay the kid for his time. Area teens have a chance to put Hartinger to the fiscal test on May 10 when he appears at Copperfield's Books in Montgomery Village.
In Hartinger's newest work, The Order of the Poison Oak (Harper Collins; $15.95), we follow a frank and funny self-deprecating narrator named Russel Middlebrook. Russel is a junior at Goodkind High School, an institution that seems ironically named to a gay teenager who was thrust unwillingly out of the closet in 2003's Geography Club, to which this is a sequel.
Desperate to no longer be "the gay kid" at school, Russel happily accepts a summer job as a camp counselor far away from home. He'll be able to reinvent himself and no longer be identified to others simply by his sexual orientation. Accompanied by his best friends from Geography Club, the bisexual Min and heterosexual Gunnar, Russel sets off for an unfettered summer of adventure.
During the course of the book, Min and Russel are both seduced by the same Adonis-like creep, Gunnar awkwardly finds true love and everyone learns a lesson, of course. After all, it's a teen novel, and we adults appreciate the expediency of having our kids instructed while being entertained. But what Russel learns is that while he may look unscathed, he bears the same scars as the group of young burn victims who are his first charges. Is being gay really tantamount to having survived a life-and-death emergency by fire?
Speaking by phone from the Washington state home he shares with his partner of 13 years, writer Michael Jensen--an author who specializes in the gay Western genre--Hartinger briskly acknowledges the connection. "Yes," he says. "I'm not trying to say that anyone had it worse or better. There are feelings that people in situations share. The scars are different, but they're both there."
For Hartinger, such scars are mostly incurred during the teen years. "My books, especially the gay books, have a sizable twenty-something-and-older audience," he says. "I've given a lot of thought to why that it is. The one thing that all adults have in common is that we were all teens, so these experiences really resonate. Gay adults will say, 'I like your books because they give me a chance to relive the adolescence I never had.'
"One of the many things that makes my blood boil is that gay teens are robbed of so many of the boring innocent things: holding hands in the hallway, going to the prom. When you have to keep your feelings hidden, you are robbed of all these innocent experiences that help us learn how to be adults, how to love, how to be part of a community. People feel that they're able to recapture their adolescence; that's part of the reason I write the books, to rewrite my teen years and to give them a purpose and a happy ending."
Fortunately, The Order of the Poison Oak reads less like an exercise in personal therapy than an updating of Holden Caulfield's cantankerous teenage voice. What ultimately interests Hartinger, who founded a gay youth foundation in Tacoma, is that "a teenaged character is filled with so much dramatic possibility"--that, and the fact that there is so little reflection in our society for gay youth. "When I first starting working with gay teenagers, I was sort of an unwitting role model," he says. "They would look at my life and idolize it, and it made me really uncomfortable. Now that I'm older and have more confidence, I understand how few role models there are of adult gay men in long-term relationships; they're just not visible.
"When you've got a typical straight kid, there's a picture in his mind from movies and other media. When they're able to look at me, I can help give them a picture. We're not perfect, but we're here and we're integrated in our community."
Brent Hartinger appears with his partner Michael Jensen to talk about their lives, work, relationship and 'The Order of the Poison Oak' on Tuesday, May 10, at Copperfield's Books. 2316 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. 7pm. Free (money-back guarantee!). 707.578.8938.
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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.