The World of Normal Boys

By K.M. Soehnlein
Kensington Books, New York City
282 pages, $22

This moving first novel, which thoroughly conjures the life of a queer 13-year-old circa 1978, is actually the back story of a 1980s AIDS activist. Author K.M. Soehnlein, a member of ACT UP, had tried writing a novel back then about someone like himself, a gay man in his twenties in New York City. “I found I had no distance,” he told POZ, “so as a writing exercise I created this guy’s whole story in order to figure out how he got where he is today.”

Out of that emerged The World of Normal Boys. Soehnlein’s suburban New Jersey normalcy conceals both pleasures and dangers: central character Robin’s growing attraction to boys and his little brother Jackson’s near-fatal accident. Robin must contend not only with his own slippery identity, but with the shifting ground of a family in crisis and his amorphous guilt over Jackson’s injury (for which Robin is partially responsible). Robin finds solace in rebellion: He smokes pot, cuts school, runs away to New York City for a day and explores sex with two other adolescent boys.

Soehnlein says that Robin’s story reflects those of dozens of ACT UPers he knew -- suburban exiles who thought that “being gay was about being outside the culture, an outlaw.” Robin develops a similar worldview; by the end of the novel, “he very much identifies as someone ’not normal.’”

With a tragic accident at its center, Normal Boys reflects how those living in the shadow of AIDS must find a way for sexuality to coexist with grief, guilt and fear. Of Robin’s first blowjob, given by a 16-year-old neighbor, the author writes, “He can distinguish Todd’s teeth from his tongue from the insides of his cheeks. It gets better from here: an embrace, a tightening, a satisfying tension climbing upward, taking over.” It’s as if Robin is distinguishing all of his tangled emotions in this single event -- the risky teeth of danger and loss from the soft tongue and cheeks of love.