Growing up gay and rebellious in a devoutly evangelical home in Kansas City is a promising premise for a memoir. There must be lots of conflict, domestic drama and self-discovery, right? Throw in the usual teenage hormone tsunami and you have a potential best-seller in the hottest of all literary categories: young adult.
Aaron Hartzler delivers the goods on two-thirds of that great premise in his debut book, which comes with the intriguing title Rapture Practice. He describes rising conflict, hormone overdrive and plenty of (mostly secret) rebellion — non–parent approved movies, non-Christian music, alcohol and even some backseat groping with girls.
But somehow, as this book has it, the highly intelligent, emotionally perceptive Hartzler doesn't grasp why just being near his best friend, Bradley, makes him feel so good. Or why feeling up a more-than-willing sophomore girl doesn't do anything other than confuse him. Or why he's fascinated by a photo of a guy at a gay pride parade leaning in to kiss a boy in a ball cap — an image that he can't get out of his mind.
Forget about the unrealized dramatic potential of coming out to your Jesus-freak parents — two well-meaning but dogmatic souls. Hartzler doesn't even let us in on the drama of coming out to himself.
It's a strange choice, one that the 38-year-old author justifies as a matter of chronology. “That happened right after the events of this book,” he explains to the Weekly. “And it took two more years to come out to everyone else.”
So instead of resolution, the reader is left with hints. “If I'm really honest with myself, having sex with a girl has never seemed like a huge temptation …,” he confesses when contemplating the virginity ring given him by his parents and worn as a pledge not to have sex before marriage. Or this, when Bradley hugs him at a New Year's party: “My whole body is electric again, like that night in the hot tub. The air is thick in the family room, and I search his eyes for some flicker of recognition, some sign that he might feel something similar.”
But instead of taking the next logical step and exploring what his feelings mean, it's on to the party and the forbidden rum and coke.
It's a shame Hartzler chose to end his story before coming to terms with his emerging sexuality, because the rest of the book is so well done. The writing is fluid and graceful; the narrative is compelling — even with such a glaring structural and dramatic flaw — and the characters are vividly drawn. His dad comes across as well-meaning but so overbearing that all the good things he does as a father and a professor at a Bible college are overwhelmed by his obsessive need to control his children.
That may be the reason, ultimately, that Hartzler chose to deprive readers of the inevitable resolution to the simmering conflict that dominates the last third of the book: Even as he approaches middle age, his father's presence still looms.
“I don't want to hurt my parents. I love them very much,” he tells the Weekly. “But they're not supportive of the fact that I'm gay and that I have a partner.”
He adds, “I'm not even sure they've read Rapture Practice.”
The book ends with Hartzler graduating from high school and heading for the Bible college his father insists he attend for at least a year before transferring to a more secular school. Hartzler tells the Weekly he was thrown out during the spring semester.
“That was for sleeping with my girlfriend,” he says. “And I was also having an affair with my roommate.”
Sounds like it would have been a pretty terrific ending for Rapture Practice — or a great start to a sequel.
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