Even with broken parts, you can build a functional machine. Take a bent manifold, a rusty chain and suddenly you have a robot that walks only into walls, a radio playing only silence, furniture that won’t talk. Likewise, some writer’s can weld together adolescence’s great banalities, its cliches and tritenesses, into really satisfying fiction. Bradford Tice’s “How to Become An American Boy,” an awkwardly told coming-out tale of one queer youth in flyover U.S.A., is a perfect example.
From the title on, the story begs for derision. It is broken into eight segments, four goals (with titles like “Goal Three: Find a male role model” and “Goal Four: Be Stoic in the Face of Disaster”), each followed by a “Self-Actualization Scene.” To enhance the general PSA atmosphere, each of the Goal segments takes place primarily in a psychiatrist’s chair. There’s a shadowy expectation of hate crimes or sexual violence. Moreover, it’s written in the second person future. That “You” is the main character, and that this is the story of what “You” will do, could almost justify total dismissal of the work, but, happily, that reaction is precisely the gasoline on which this machine runs.
Second person is used often enough without trouble. Typically, “You” is just a character, but here, it’s a challenge. Am I being told how closely to pay attention? Are my readerly abilities in doubt? “You” isn’t who you will be, but being misnamed as such, he’s not really anyone. He’s identityless, or wrongly identified on purpose. The parallel’s with his sexual confusion are obvious here, of course. Even as “You” moves through his first midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show, comes out to his friends and his mom, the reader is distracted, antagonized, irritated, plagued by this question of identity and cliché, the tension between Tice’s good-enough prose and his otherwise oddly built rhetoric. And in the little hole cut into the narrative by these questions the story takes a micro-meta turn. By baiting the reader with obvious clichés, Tice is able to address identity and difference indirectly, and expansively. It isn’t about “You,” after all. But who? And the question, asked in a blank space removed from the narrative, feels honest, excites the defenses less. Forgettable self-talk like “Be conventional and go weak at the knees,” suddenly expresses more about identity and difference than it objectively should. It’s as if he’s created a kind of context capsule around the story.
When Tice brings the narrative back into focus and resolves with this:
“What will overtake you at this moment will be a realization that there isn’t very much separating you from the people in those white, geometric houses. The zombies slouching their way through the next blue-light special, thinking if they only had a brain. You will look down and see yourself standing on a knife blade, balanced between your hopes for freedom and a whimpering need of warmth. Feel as American as apple pie, Graceland, channel six, loud color―and know someday you will unpack an attic full of junk and kitschy cast-offs onto your front lawn for a rummage sale. Strangers will wander through the maze of your life casually, as if they knew you. Spread out, it will all look like a map you remember from grade school―divided into territories, states, cities, homes―a whole teeming nation of desires.”
It’s unexpectedly satisfying.