Kenilworth Castle

Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle, John of Gaunt's Hall

Monday, April 25, 2011

Seal of Disapproval

One of the books on my list of suggested YA novels is Dishes by Rich Wallace. New book, new to me author. It's just a skinny little thing, 145 pages hardcover (and evidently costing $16.99. Viking, not cool).

About halfway through the book, I had to put it down. It was getting on my nerves, and I had other things I needed to do. I updated my facebook status before going off to do my errands: "i think the YA novel i'm reading might be both homo- and fat-phobic."

After the soothing cupcake-and-sparkle of My Most Excellent Year, I picked Dishes  back up in the futile hope it would improve.

It didn't.


It's rare for me to say "what was the point of this book?" I am aware of subjectivity, of art for its own sake, of that elusive and nasty word "relatable" - there are many reasons for reading and writing, and I'm open to most of them. This one? 
Search me.
There's no obvious plot: Danny, our first-person narrator who has no real personality, is working as a dishwasher for the summer in Ogunquit, Maine. He's gotten the job via his mostly-absentee dad, Jack, who bartends at Dishes, the gay bar  in town. 
What we know about Danny: he likes running and keeping fit. He likes pretty girls. He has a vague, fleeting romantic streak that is poorly expressed and doesn't stick with him. "Sex I've had," he tells us, but never a girlfriend. Jack, his father, was seventeen when Danny was born; Jack mostly stays out of Danny's life. In Ogunquit, Jack is known as quite the man about town - always a different girl.


Danny meets a pretty waitress named Mercy. They flirt. They have sex. Hector, a gay waiter at Dishes, befriends Danny. They have meaningful conversations on the beach at night. Danny flirts a little, but asserts his hetero-ness over and over. 
Blah blah blah.


Homophobic:
we are always being reminded that Dishes is a gay bar! full of gay men! Hector and Chase, both young, attractive waiters, are gay! and, of course, they both lust after, and hit on, Danny. Who feels uncomfortable. Not because they're gay! Oh no. Danny's all open and tolerant. He just feels bad that he can't give them what they want.
What's really gross is Mercy. 
At a league softball game, after Mercy and Danny have had an awkward "date," she comes up and says "You're playing?...For the gay team?"
Danny: "we won this morning."
Mercy: "I'm impressed." Doesn't sound like it.


Mercy points out her brother, playing on the opposing team (firemen, of course). 
We're treated to another episode of Danny's flirting. Hector says "I was sure you were a switch-hitter," when Danny steps up to bat righty. Danny: "You wish." I flex a bicep and give him a very manly look.
Oookay, Danny.
Now we're treated to Mercy's brother, and his teammates, making antigay remarks. They make comments under their breath, "like the occasional faggot or pussy." 
Mercy asks: "Is everyone on the team gay except two of you?"
She's really interested in knowing who's gay and who isn't. 


Later, after the game, Mercy and Danny go for another late-night date/walk. She interrogates him about Hector, wanting to know - surprise - if he's gay. Then she brings her brother into it - he wants to know why Danny's interested in her, a girl. Danny, who by this point should be wondering why this girl is such an idiot, OR kicking her to the curb for being a homophobic schmuck, reminds her that he isn't gay. Mercy: "He[her brother] said he'd kill you if I got AIDS."


"I start to say something about Buddy being an asshole, but I remember in a hurry that he's her brother, so I don't. But I certainly say it loud and clear to myself."
To Mercy, he says nothing of significance, until he asks her if she has a problem with gay people (it's taken him over 70 pages to realize this question needs asking; neither Danny nor Mercy is the sharpest knife in the drawer. Maybe they deserve each other).
Mercy: "No. I have a problem with people who can't figure themselves out."
Danny, understandably, is confused, because Mercy makes no goddam sense.
She says " You're always hanging around with these...."
"These gay people."


Sigh. Still, Danny isn't bright enough to call it off, so he continues this inane, and offensive, conversation.
Mercy: "I don't call them queers or faggots like my brother does. This isn't homophobia. It's about whether I can trust you."


This is the point where any reasonably sane hetero guy with any life experience at all gives up the ghost, and runs as fast and as far as possible because clearly, Mercy's nuts. Psycho, as the kids say.
Her sob story: she dated this guy in college, who cheated on her. With a guy. Her ex-bf went back and forth between her and the guy. She tells Danny: "I went and got tested and sweated that out until the results came. I was clean, okay, but that was criminal, if you ask me."


Danny lets it go, because, hey, he's found a really pretty girl, and she seems to like him (he actually says this at some point in the text). And she lets him have sex with her in a disused storage room, so - great. It's unclear if he actually likes Mercy; it's hard to see why he would.
For the remainder of the book, Mercy keeps popping up at Dishes, checking up to make sure Danny isn't, you know, talking to any of those....those....gay guys. Who, of course, are just throwing themselves at Danny. And are really promiscuous to boot. Except the "marshmallow bouncer" Sal, upstairs, who can never seem to find a hook up. Every comment about Sal is actually about Sal's fatness - when he runs downstairs to break up a fight, everyone jokes about how the whole building shook, ha ha.
We're told various characters could "stand to lose some weight." That Danny's mom isn't cute anymore, she's "really overweight." And more fat jokes at Sal's expense. 


Wallace makes some vague efforts at cloaking the homophobia, but they're weak. Mercy saying she's not homophobic doesn't mean she isn't, which seems, temporarily, obvious to Danny. But he's pathetic too, and is sure all the gay boys want him, and mostly he just wants to get laid, so he lets it all go.  Hector, the only one in the book with the potential to have a soul, makes a few comments to the effect that you straight dudes are all the same - you all think all gay men are dying for you. Danny's retort: "well, weren't you?" Hector: sheepishly, "kinda."
Mercy's creepy jealousy seems to be her main character trait, and that's one I can't see many guys putting up with from the get-go. There are never any female "rivals" (her word for all those...those...gay guys at the restaurant), so we only ever see Mercy's paranoia deployed at gay men. And she is always very careful to identify them as gay - the bar as gay, people as gay, whatever. 
Suddenly, at the end, she's all lovey-dovey, when Hector and Sal get together. Danny, fat-phobic as he is, is puzzled - Sal's like three times the size of skinny Hector! Mercy suddenly becomes the font of wisdom and lovingkindness: "they're exactly the same inside. Why shouldn't two kind souls be together?"
It's funny how two pages earlier, you were shooting laser-eyes at one of those kind souls for daring to speak to this blank flop of a Danny.


Then everyone goes home happy, feeling like they've carved out their niches in the world.


No really. That's pretty much how it ends.


If this book is actually a peep inside the mind of an 18/19 -year old straight male, then I thank god I never could read minds. Danny's only criterion for girls, evidently, is prettiness; he seems totally comfortable with Mercy's creepy jealousy and her homophobia; he has no interests, no ambitions, no emotions. In fact, the most emotional scene in the book is one between Danny and Hector, when they briefly discuss their mutual longing for a real emotional, romantic connection with someone. Danny clearly means "possessive and sex-based" when he says "emotional, romantic connection," because that's what he gets with the ill-named Mercy. 


This is an icky, fat-phobic, insidiously homophobic, book that should never have been published by a major publishing house (Viking, I'm ashamed of you). The homophobia is all the worse because it's under the veneer of "acceptance." Danny and Mercy both mouth correctnesses, but undermine their words with their suspicions and persistent classifying every gay person they encounter. We don't see much conflict between straight and gay characters, because the heteros mostly hide their disdain for the gay fellows at the bar. The strife and tension is almost never made manifest. Instead, it's hazed over with a weak-ass happy ending that pairs of the fat guy and the sappy gay boy, leaving all the other promiscuous gay boys to each other, while Mercy and Danny face their emotionless, sterile - but sexual - future together. 


A grim read, indeed. 
Highly UNrecommended.

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