Review of Playing By The Book by Chris Shirley. Magnus Books, Bronx, NY, 2014. 305 pages.
If you are willing to love your LGBTQ neighbor as you love yourself, Playing By The Book will assist you, not so much with argument as with passion. The novel immerses the reader into the passions of Jake Powell during the summer between his junior and senior year in high school in Tarsus, Alabama.
Jake, like his novelist creator, is gay and very bright. Jake is highly conflicted. He is still not sure about the gay thing, and prays intensely that the phase will soon pass.
Jake’s father, addressed and spoken of by the family as well as the community as “The Preacher,” is also very bright, and wants Jake to become another successful fundamentalist preacher. Jake is in nervous awe of The Preacher, but Jake wants to be a journalist.
Hope comes to Jake when Columbia University accepts him for a prestigious summer course for editors of high school newspapers. The Preacher does not want Jake to attend; his mother does. The Preacher compromises only after Jake agrees to a hard bargain: Attend and win one of the top awards, or stay at home and pursue the ministry. Both agree that this will be a good test of God’s will.
Thus Jake heads to New York City.
Any plot a writer might consider has pitfalls, and Chris Shirley avoids them all. He does not turn the book into a thinly veiled gay polemic. He is explicit but does not titillate. Nor does he bore us by being predictable. Few readers will accurately anticipate the fine turns the plot takes. Nor does Shirley divide the book’s characters neatly into the good and the bad. He exposes every one of them, and he respects every one of them.
Playing By the Book works less to change readers’ minds than to connect to our hearts. Jake makes mistakes one after another, and each of them hurts him. I often found myself wincing. “You are too bright to do that!” I wanted to shout. As an elderly gay man, I grew more and more frustrated with him and with my homeland. “Has the South not become any safer?” I asked myself.
My husband and I married in 1974 as an interracial gay couple in tiny Fort Valley, Georgia. The Birchite Macon Herald gave front-page coverage to Bishop James Dees’ assertion that we had caused a tornado that hit the town. “This is the voice of God. The town of Fort Valley is harboring Solomist [sic]. Would one expect God to keep silent when homosexuals are tolerated? We remember what He did to Sodom and Gomorrah” (March 20, 1975, page 1). On another occasion, the Atlanta Constitution covered The Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta’s summons to discipline me. Playing By the Book touched many painful memories.
I won’t spoil the book by telling you the ending, but it definitely answered my question about whether the South has become any safer.
Playing By The Book is fellow Alabaman Chris Shirley’s first novel. I look forward to more of them.