Judging a Country By Its Books’ Covers: Two Boys Kissing

08/28/2013 4:00 AM |

Two Boys Kissing
By David Levithan

David Levithan’s characters often identify as LGBT, but they rarely have to deal with the the violence, the rejection, and the despair that can come with that, especially among teenagers. He’s said that’s because he thinks literature’s job isn’t just to reflect the world as it is but also to imagine how it should be—that idealism is as important as abject accuracy. The town in his debut, Boy Meets Boy, is ridiculously accepting: the high school quarterback isn’t just a drag queen—
she’s also the homecoming queen.

Just a decade into Levithan’s prolific career, American attitudes are starting to catch up with his books. DOMA and Prop 8 were struck down this year; same-sex marriage is legal in 13 states, and the president publicly supports extending it to the other 37. When Boy Meets Boy was published in 2003, George W. Bush was president, and no US jurisdiction enjoyed marriage equality; the book’s title was timidly spelled out in tiny candy hearts against a Pantone 292 background. Levithan’s latest, his greatest, is called Two Boys Kissing, and its cover features a close-up photo of a pair of teenage males mid-makeout. Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you sure can judge the country in which it was printed.

I was self-conscious about reading it on the subway or in reactionary neighborhood bars. But that’s just my own stupid shit. No book so beautiful, so hopeful, wistful, giddy, heartbreaking and good should make anyone anxious. It ought to be a source of pride—defiant, if necessary—to possess such a masterpiece. Telling the stories of several present-day gay teens in neighboring suburban towns, it’s narrated by the collective voice of a generation of AIDS casualties, whose musings Levithan uses to imbue with poignancy the smallest details of living: phone cords and bedsheets and the first pangs of love. It’s an eye-watering tribute to being alive, told by those who really ought to know what a gift it is. When two of the teens travel cheerfully to a local river, it prompts the narrators to reflect on how miserable their deaths were: “Our last breaths were of climate-controlled air. We died under ceilings… It makes us more grateful now for rivers, more grateful for sky.” I mean, really, it’s like every sentence is full of enough feeling to make you sigh out loud, if not start outright weeping, even on public transportation.

The title’s two boys are actually exes, committed to breaking the world record for the longest kiss, a political act devised after an acquaintance at their high school was beaten into the hospital for being—or, rather, just seeming—gay. Levithan doesn’t shy away here from the darker sides of the homosexual experience; he confronts the physical and emotional violence. There are supportive boyfriends, supportive parents and supportive friends, but there are also parents who don’t and won’t understand; ass-kicking, rib-cracking bullies; vile Internet commenters; and hateful protestors. Above all, there’s the specter of AIDS, the largest-scale violence ever inflicted upon the gay community.

Still, the new generation has made so much more progress than the one it followed, the one that abandoned its successor by dying. And “if you play your cards right,” the older generation tells the younger, “the next generation will have so much more than you did.” Levithan is the most romantic writer in America, convinced and convincing that to love and be loved by another is life’s highest calling. To live is to love, he suggests in this marvelous novel, and to love is to not be dead.