CHRISTOPHER RICE doesn't hide his literary connections. And why should he? His mom's none other than cult-lit queen Anne Rice, dad Stan's a poet, and, at 21, he's got a two-book contract from the page-to-stage folks at Talk/Miramax. Add to that a sultry New Orleans setting, a dash of teen angst ࠬa the WB, and Rice has himself a debut novel, A Density of Souls. Just like mom, he wastes no time acclimating his readers to a subculture where passions run high and an impending sense of doom threatens to undermine all that is good in the world.
A DENSITY OF SOULS
by Christopher Rice (Talk/Miramax Books, $23.95)
No, we're not talking about vampires—we're talking about high school.
Childhood friends Greg, Brandon, Stephen, and Meredith don't survive as a foursome once they hit the ninth grade. Football jocks Greg and Brandon torment Stephen, a cerebral type who's still dealing with his dad's suicide, and Meredith is too busy drinking on the sly and keeping up with her fellow bulimic cheerleaders. Having caught Greg and Stephen sexually entangled the summer before, Meredith succumbs to her fear of being unpopular with her shallow classmates—for her own social survival, she chooses to date Greg and betray Stephen.
She remembered a cemetery pummeled by rain. She remembered a tangle of mud-flecked legs. The memory led Meredith to commit an act that would carve itself into her memory with the building precision of regret. "He's a fag," she said flatly. Some flame guttered inside of her, quietly and without protest.
As Stephen makes his way through his freshman year at the prestigious Cannon School, he's teased and threatened constantly. But he knows why. "[Stephen] finally understood the whispers that had followed him around all day. He knew what was being said. And he knew it was true." He changes his clothes before gym to avoid the locker room. Someone tapes the word "FAG" to his backpack. His old friends hate him; teachers pretend not to notice him; he's utterly alone. Or so he thinks. Like Anne Rice's Vampire LeStat in his solitary search for blood, a community waits for him to join the fold. But first he must suffer.
RICE REINFORCES all manner of stereotypes. The stuck-up American high school, with all the eating disorders, conveniently clueless teachers, and pep-rally trimmings, feels like a device to make Stephen's plight all the more tragic. The girls binge and vomit, screw in the back of cars, drink themselves into comas, and vie for homecoming queen. When the book descends into typical scenarios, homoeroticism freshens it up—gays masquerade as quarterbacks, stealing furtive glances at one another as they pass in the hallways.
Homosexual contact scenes, in contrast to the icky or downright violent hetero fumblings portrayed here, are meticulously written. When Stephen experiences his first kiss, it's revelatory and pure. To set the scene, there's a freak Louisiana snowstorm, and Stephen even makes a snow angel. But the prose quietly attaches itself to a moment of intimacy that needs no embellishment.
"Half a minute passed before Stephen opened his mouth. For a while they shared breath. Both felt for the first time what it was like to be lost in another person and momentarily free of one's self."
There's a lot to admire in Rice's first effort. He's learned, or perhaps inherited, a storyteller's sense of timing. And he capably brings a gay teen's inner turmoil to life. Stephen's story spins off into a multigenerational saga where retribution, flash floods, and tolling church bells coexist with gay bars and Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony. In the conservative Garden District, good boys tackle each other on the football field and snap towels in the locker room. But Rice turns this around, and it's up to Stephen, the novel's pariah and Jesus figure, to elicit enough sympathy for us to understand the world he must inhabit for his own safety and survival.
Hey, didn't his mom already write that one?
Christopher Rice reads at Elliott Bay Book Co. Thursday 8/24 at 7:30.