Author: James St James
Genre: YA/ Contemporary/ LGBT
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Publication date: May 2007 (first edition)
Paperback: 304 pages
Meet Billy Bloom, new student at the ultra-white, ultra-rich, ultra-conservative Dwight D. Eisenhower Academy and drag queen extraordinaire. Actually, “drag queen” does not begin to describe Billy and his fabulousness. Any way you slice it, Billy is not a typical seventeen-year-old, and the Bible Belles, Aberzombies, and Football Heroes at the academy have never seen anyone quite like him before. But thanks to the help and support of one good friend, Billy’s able to take a stand for outcasts and underdogs everywhere in his own outrageous, over-thetop, sad, funny, brilliant, and unique way.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought.
Why did I get this book: Once again, I blame it on Renay.
“Tease hair not homos!”
I am delighted with my YA reading at the moment. Yes, there were a few hurdles on the road, but you know, the obstacles only serve to help me appreciate the good books more and boy, Young Adult books are proving to be such a joy to me at the moment. And Freak Show is a bright diamond amongst other equally awesome jewels and I will just shut up with the jewellery analogy because I don’t think it is working that well.
What I want to say is: this book is FABULOUS!! with capital letters, exclamation marks and extra glitter on top. It is quite hilarious and I found myself laughing till I cried. I also found myself crying till I could cry no more. I had a similar reading experience when I recently read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: how can a book be so hilarious at the same time that is breaking your heart?
Meet Billy Bloom: 17 year old drag queen who just moved from liberal Connecticut to ubber conservative Florida to live with her father after her mother decided she’s “had enough”. The book opens with her first day at high school and it gives a measure of who Billy is and how her mind works and what to expect from her narrative. She is fully aware of where she is living now and that Florida is not really the most welcoming place in the world for someone like Billy. But she is who she is. On her first day of school, out of a mixture of fear (the book opens and Billy is hiding under the sink) and a little bit of common sense, she decides to lay low and play the heterosexual role at least to start with. And this is what happens:
She dresses like a pirate (seriously) because that’s the most manly thing she can think of, tries to go for that no-makeup look that straight boys do (but perhaps just a bit of mascara, eyes shadow –because really, WHO WOULD NOTICE – and some lip gloss) and then walks into the classroom:
“Ah, biology,” I cried, and threw my hands in the air. “The Science of LIFE! Up from the primordial goo and all that! Here we stand, on the threshold of such great knowledge. Don’t you feel it? Isn’t it TOO exciting? Couldn’t you just SQUEAL?”
Of course, all hell breaks loose with the kids and much teasing and bullying ensue until things escalate to a horrible confrontation and in the aftermath of that, a more confident than ever Billy emerges. And also sweet, awesome Romance (and his love interest is the one who needs to “come out” in this story)!
This is only (I am the first to admit it) a crappy summary of the basic plot of this book. But of course, as a character-driven novel, Freak Show is much more than that.
Billy is unique, I don’t think I ever read character like that in my life and I love her. She is fantastic, dramatic, flamboyant, earnest and true. She is a boy, in case it wasn’t clear before, but because she only thinks of herself as a girl (even when mentioning erections), I shall respect her when addressing her as a “she”. I think one of the most important quotes from this book is:
gender is a choice, not a life sentence
Mind you, Billy often refuses to answer the question about her gender and whether she is gay or not. She is “gender obscurist” and this is very important to her and very clearly a perfectly legitimate choice.
But not only that: Billy’s personality comes across in the narrative itself. The book is written in a stream of consciousness manner as Billy goes along and that includes live commentary of her life and even passages of self denial with Billy going all la la la la on our asses. It is very dramatic, with constant CAPS LOCK, exclamation marks and everything in between. I love Billy’s voice and I loved how different it is, but also, how personal it is, and how it emulates exactly what goes through plot-wise: it takes a few pages to get used to Billy’s voice because it is “different” from regular narratives but when little by little details of Billy’s life are revealed to the reader – the more you read, the more intimate it all becomes and then soon enough Billy becomes a rounded character rather than a “voice” and even the things left unsaid are important.
And this, this is the most important aspect of the book to me. That Billy is UNIQUE and PROUD to be unique. And that she makes it about HER, about what she wants, what she needs and how she will live her life. There were quite a few moments of ugliness in this book that were so, so revealing as well. Billy goes through a lot of shit and the worst thing is the realisation that she goes through so much contempt, hate, violence and disgust and it is not even about HER, Billy Bloom. And that is one of the most enlightening, heartbreaking things I ever read: that bigotry it is never about the individual who is attacked, it is about conceptual ideals of what is right or wrong but alas, at the end of the day the individual, the person is the one that hurts, that suffers, and that has to go through all that. That it is so fucking personal to the one that is at the receiving end of hate but the haters can’t even be bothered to understand that and will carry on blindly hating on principle. What it’s worse? When even allies make it about them and their guilt .
WAY TO MAKE THIS STORY ABOUT YOU, DUDE.
says Billy at one point.
There is much to love about the book: Billy’s makeup lessons; his relationship with Flip and how compassionate and understanding Billy is and possibly the only person to understand the weight of outside expectations that Flip has to live with; Billy’s difficult relationship with both his parents; plus a lot of comedy, drama and HEART!
“I’m pro-glamour and anti-khaki. I support total artistic freedom, and I’m against conservative backlashes. I intend to stamp out redneckism where I find it, and fight discrimination and Christian intolerance, using only my beauty, wit, and wig-styling skills. I’m going to try, single-handedly, to bring about an end to the hatred I’m found here at Eisenhower. … TEASE HAIR, NOT HOMOS!”
At one point, something REALLY bad happens to Billy and to everybody’s dismay there are no official repercussions to what happens to him. But one of the things that Billy hopes to accomplish it to start a Gay-Straight alliance at this school. I think this is really important and I thought I should add here a link to the GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students).
Verdict:I love, love this book and I adore Billy Bloom: my newest addition to my list of favourite characters.
Rating: 8 Excellent – leaning towards 9
Reading Next: Haywired by Alex Keller