Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix A Place At The Table

In Michael Downing's funny, moving novel, two gay men make room for a very unusual boy

By David Valdes Greenwood

NOVEMBER 15, 1999: 

Breakfast with Scot by Michael Downing (Counterpoint), 195 pages, $24.

Scot, the title character of Cambridge author Michael Downing's fourth novel, would be a handful for any parent. At 11, the red-headed youth is drawn to drapery, appliqué, impromptu cheerleading, and countless foofy accessories that are sure to make him an outcast at school. Not to mention that his idea of being prepared is to wear a poncho stuffed with Band-Aids, Chap Stick, sunglasses, and extra pairs of socks. As the narrator, Ed, says: "In a line-up of boys with earrings, you'll know Scot. He's the one sporting the white daisies. Clip-ons."

But Ed and his partner, Sam, are not just any parents. For one thing, they're both men. Ed works in the American office of "Europe's most something magazine," Sam is a New Age-y chiropractor, and they have no desire to change their happy Cambridge life until Sam's nephew arrives in their care after the boy's mother dies. A two-man house suddenly needs to make room for a third, and it isn't at all effortless. What follows is not just the comical story of two adults adjusting to the unpredictable world of child-rearing, but the introspective tale of two gay men made uncomfortable by the presence of an undeniable sissy.

Until Scot's arrival, Ed and Sam have maintained a certain amused remove from gay culture. In fact, Ed's first reference to their sexuality is oblique: he notes that "two handsome young men who'd obviously shopped for clothes in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald" look to Scot like a "better version of Sam and me." With their assimilated and relatively gender-typical lives, they're sometimes embarrassed by a child who wears eye makeup to elementary school and hoards baubles and beads. Eventually, though, Ed recognizes traces of his younger self in Scot. When the boy makes one of many scenes, disrupting a holiday huckleberry-pie-making party by dressing up a neighbor's child as a cheerleader, Ed perceives his hosts' disdain, and it touches a nerve. He leads a rousing cheer in Scot's defense -- admitting he had pompons in his own past.

Unfortunately, though, this cognac-fueled speech merely stuns everybody into uncomfortable silence, making all those present (including Ed) acutely aware of their conflicted feelings about gayness. This tense scene, which incisively captures the undercurrents of unacknowledged emotion and buried grievance that make holiday gatherings so dangerous, is typical of Downing's ability to render human details with painful precision and remarkable self-control. The novel's most emotionally naked moments are all the more powerful because they occur sparingly; when Downing does choose to invest a small action with pointed meaning, the result is deeply affecting. Late in the novel, when there is the real possibility that Scot might leave, the boy's empty teacup becomes impossibly loaded with significance, a porcelain presence representing the threat of his permanent absence.

Much of the book, by contrast, makes pure comedy of the clash between Scot's predilections toward queeny excess and other characters' gender-rigid expectations. These other characters are pretty colorful in their own right: Nula, Ed's high-strung, chain-smoking co-worker; Mildred, the nice old lady next door who thinks planting bulbs will do Scot some good; Art, the bank manager with a watch on each wrist and a secret passion; and Ryan, the free-love skinhead across the street. Downing manages not only to find the right balance between humor and pathos, but to blend the two in witty ways. In a scene in which Scot is caught cross-dressed as a cheerleader by a straight friend, the moment would be a true nail-biter -- except that it's difficult to bite one's nails while giggling, as one must after seeing how inventively he has used athletic socks for pompons.

The shortest chapters are such moments rendered in a hundred words or less, little dramas in which a good deed (the gift of a pie, for instance) is mingled with the pain of misunderstanding (it's actually a peace offering, delivered late). When you stumble onto one of these tiny scenes, and discover the emotional wallop packed into a few sentences, it becomes clear that Downing has a jeweler's knack for rendering beauty in miniature. This brief, sparkling novel is testament to that skill.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Books: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . The Boston Phoenix . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch