Benjamin Alire Sáenz, September 2009. This powerful first-person narrative is set in a rehab center, where eighteen-year-old Zach has woken up with no memories of how he got there. It’s clear that he and his father are alcoholics and that his mother and brother are abusive, but that doesn’t shed a lot of light on the recent chain of events that led to his institutionalization. The truth comes out over the course of Zach’s stay, thanks to his father-figure roommate and his caring therapist.
The book has the potential to be just another tale of rehab and redemption, but due to Sáenz’s incredible talent, it surpasses expectations to become the best YA novel I’ve read this year. Recovery does not come easy for Zach; he cries and screams and sweats out all of his pain and desire, and it rings so true that I found myself clenching the cover and almost tearing the pages as I turned them. I gasped and had real tears of joy in my eyes on page 234.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is its queer content. We don’t know whether Zach is gay; he turns down a kiss from a boy, but later promises he will kiss him, but then says it might just be a thank-you. Zach never mentions a girlfriend or boyfriend or any sexual behavior other than abuse by his mother. Although he is in a mixed-sex rehab, everyone he connects with is male; on the other hand, he seems to relate to them as ersatz family rather than as romantic partners. The ambiguity surrounding Zach’s sexuality can be read as gaytopic in the sense that it doesn’t seem to matter to him; it’s not part of his confusion or his rehabilitation. That’s why this post has the “gaytopia” tag when the rest of the story is anything but lighthearted.