In the Wake of the Boatman, by Jonathan Scott Fuqua.
As soon as he finished showering and straightening up, he fled the apartment. Confused and sickened, he went downtown, and at a bar in Fells Point, he drunkenly contemplated suicide for the first time in his life. What he had done seemed worse than kissing Clyde. He had been a kid back then, but now he was an adult -- an adult man who had derived pleasure from dressing up as a woman. He turned and searched the bar. If he could pick a fight with some combustible character, maybe he would be stabbed or shot, and no one would ever guess he was so sick. - from In the Wake of the Boatman, page 110 -
Puttnam ("Putt") Douglas Steward has grown up in the shadow of a father who emotionally abuses his son to accommodate his own identity crisis. Carl Steward wants to fight in a war, but can't because of a trick knee; he repeatedly builds boats which sink when placed on the water; he loves Puttnam, but also has expectations of him which the boy can never meet. Carl feels disappointment in Putt from his infancy onward.
[...] Carl had questions about the baby. He scrutinized him from the corners of his eyes. A single whimper and he interpreted it as a horrible sign his son lacked something inside. - from In the Wake of the Boatman, page 4 -
So it is not surprising when Puttnam struggles with his own identity as he matures from a young boy into man. In the Wake of the Boatman is about that struggle. Putt attends college at the school from which his father never graduated (a slight which Carl believes is done on purpose to further embarrass him). Once in college (on an ROTC scholarship), Putt has a sexual encounter with another man which terrifies him. He compensates by plunging fully into his military role and volunteering to go to Vietnam. Putt's search for his identity is often painful, but also tender. Putt begins finding joy in dressing as a woman -- a secret fantasy which repulses him as much as it brings him sexual pleasure and leads him to consider suicide (if not by his own hand, then by placing himself in dangerous situations such as the war).
Jonathon Fuqua fully develops Puttnam, a character who fears rejection not only from his demanding father, but from his sister Mary and best friend Milton. The tension and conflict in the novel are Putt's internal struggles to accept himself and learn to trust those who love him. The novel explores the idea of nature vs. nurture in human sexuality, and opens the door for further discussions about alternative lifestyles. Puttnam is a character who readers will empathize with as he searches for a true understanding of himself.
I found the writing to be a bit uneven at times in this thoughtful novel. Fuqua's overuse of adverbs was something that at times distracted me from the story, while at other times I was swept up in the gorgeous descriptive paragraphs and pithy dialogue. Where Fuqua excels is in his understanding of the characters' motivations, fears and dilemmas. Carl is a destructive father, one who consistently hurts his only son, and yet I found myself feeling sorrow for the character and wanting Putt to find forgiveness for him.
In the Wake of the Boatman is literary fiction which may polarize readers due to its subject matter. But, it will also allow readers to gain a better understanding of those who are labeled "different" by society and perhaps foster acceptance of those differences.
Jonathon Scott Fuqua is an award winning author of YA literature, as well as the Alex Award winning novel The Reappearance of Sam Webber.
Three and a half stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".