These Things Happen: A Novel
- Richard Kramer
- Unbridled Books
- 272 pp.
- December 6, 2012
A teen’s admission of being gay and the violence that follows drives this “not-quite-coming-of-age story.”
Reviewed by Steve Watkins
These things almost happen after publication of These Things Happen, TV producer/director Richard Kramer’s first novel:
Kramer wins the National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction. He is short-listed for the Pulitzer, a rarity for the author of a YA novel. And, OK, what the hell, he also picks up the Michael Printz Award for best YA book of 2012.
I say “almost,” because if Kramer had only stayed with Wesley, the adolescent narrator whose funny, wry and resonant voice is featured in the opening chapter of These Things Happen, he would likely have picked up a few literary prizes next year to go along with his Emmys and Peabodys, or at least been in the running.
Alas, Kramer largely abandons Wesley after that opening chapter in what his publisher describes as “a not-quite-coming-of-age story.” The first-time author chooses instead to bounce around in subsequent chapters through the voices of a variety of rotating characters, only one of whom is an adolescent, and too many of whom sound too much like grown-up Wesleys — wistful, smart, earnest, painfully self-conscious and clever.
Here’s the story: Wesley, spending a high-school semester living with his gay father and his father’s partner in Manhattan, finds out his best friend, Theo, is also gay. That’s because Theo announces it at a school assembly where he’s just been elected class president. Wesley is OK with it, of course, if a little shaken, and uncertain about what it means for their friendship. This being contemporary, liberal, theater-district New York society, though, no big deal.
Except that Theo and Wesley become victims of a violent gay-bashing incident the next day at school and their world is thrown even more off-kilter. So is the world of the grown-ups in their lives: Wesley’s gay-rights advocate dad; the dad’s partner George; Wesley’s mom and stepdad; even, weirdly, a male nurse (and ancient one-night-stand of George’s) at the hospital where Theo and Wesley are taken for treatment.
And here’s what’s missing from the story, besides the continuation of Wesley’s engaging voice:
Violence, which is blacked out in the novel. There’s no description of the assault, no speculation about the culprits, not even any cops on the scene.
Irony, which is curiously absent, especially in this panoply of bright, clever, literate characters. Plus their conversations are tortuously slow to develop — lots of unfinished sentences interrupted further by extended passages of interior monologue. That circumlocution might well work with the right actors giving life to the lines in this dialogue-heavy novel, but too much of the dialogue comes off as flat on the page.
And, finally, sex. Though the F-bomb gets dropped a couple of times, this is an awfully chaste novel, especially for one dealing in such a central way with its characters’ sexuality. Somebody gets kissed on the forehead and that’s about it.
In other words, what’s missing in These Things Happen is tension. That’s partly because nothing much comes of the assault, as I noted earlier. There’s no follow-up. No who-done-it. No sense of urgency to find out if the boys are still in danger. Instead, the novel takes an odd and weakly developed turn during a set piece in which Wesley’s mom, who by all rights should know better, all but accuses George of molesting Wesley.
All well and good for livening up the story, except nothing much comes of that either, other than the characters all feeling bad about it, and not finishing off the bruschetta they’ve been noshing on in George’s restaurant.
Throughout all of this, I found myself returning to my wish that Kramer, who brought us the TV series “Thirtysomething” and “My So-Called Life,” had just stayed in Wesley’s voice. The only other “necessary” voice in the story is George’s, which may be strong enough to merit a novel of its own. As for the others, well, maybe better seen and not heard.
Why not have Wesley tell us what happened in the assault, and who he thinks was behind it? Why not let Wesley continue the narration as he navigates the complicated world of the adults in his life, and friends who suddenly declare themselves to be gay? Why not explore this coming out, and this coming of age, from inside the character who’s (sort of) going through it all?
These Things Happen is a well intentioned novel that could have been a contender. Here’s hoping that, as dialogue-driven as it is, and with a little tweaking, it might find a second life as the pilot for Kramer’s next TV series.
It’s not likely to win the National Book Award, but perhaps another Emmy?
Steve Watkins is professor emeritus of English at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., where he taught creative writing, journalism and literature of the Vietnam War. His books include The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire, My Chaos Theory: Stories and the novels Down Sand Mountain and What Comes After. His next novel, Juvie, will be published in fall 2013 by Candlewick Press. He can be contacted at stevewatkinsbooks.com.