Sugarless ( Terrace Books; $24.95; 274 pages ) , the amazing new novel from acclaimed playwright James Magruder, is a joyous Binaca breath of fresh air.
The book about a '70s Chicagoland gay adolescence where Rick, the queer teen hero, triumphs; finds love and sex; and grows to be a man through high school speech contests, where he performs a dramatic interpretation from Boys in the Band. Sugarless is ironically chock full of sweet insights and the shameless energy of the second half of the '70s.
Magruder commented on the period in our interview: "To a teenaged boy maturing in a much more permissive time, everything seemed sexual, yet remained essentially innocent. There was no Internet. There were no gay-straight alliances in school. Pedophiles weren't assumed to be living on every block. Gay meant Paul Lynde on The Hollywood Squares; Truman Capote's drunken appearances on late-night TV; the infamous and putrid Chapter 6 of Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex; and the persistent, unsubstantiated rumor that Jim Nabors ( Gomer Pyle, for our younger readers ) had married a man."
Using the Byzantine realm of Illinois High School speech contestsor forensics, as it is knownmakes for a surprising and wild landscape of personalities, competitions and motel rooms! Speech contests are a place where queer kids and young people of color can find a piece of material and really let their identity shout out. The novel has such an amazing and authentic voice of a gay adolescent high school kid in 1976 ( I know, I was one too! ) that it makes the book incredibly enjoyable and powerfully moving as it explores how art, sex and coming out/coming of age percolate in one young man. I spoke with Magruder about Sugarless and the fine points of oral interpretation.
Tim Miller: Sugarless is amazing! How did you find that writerly tuning-fork to get so on-target with that queer time?
James Magruder: There's a line in the book, early on, that goes "Or maybe it was the silicone seventies that were oversexed, I don't know. But I do know that because I was thirteen, I thought sex began with me." I discovered through the writing of Sugarless that I could remember both the intense, mid-'70s commodification of the '60s sexual revolutionthings like Love American, Style and Fritz the Cat and Hai Karate and Swedish Tanning Secret TV commercialsand the exact month when Playboy first showed pubic bush in a centerfold as well as the intense erections I'd get on the bus ride to school every single morning. I'd pray that it would be gone by first period, which was gym.
It was clear to everyone around me that I was going to be gay, but for some bizarre reason, I wasn't in a hurry, either to come out to myself, or to find gay peers. My left hand sufficed. So I was proto-queer. I didn't get picked on, because I was in classes with the brainy kids, who tend to be slightly more tolerant, and I had a sharp tongue, if crossedanother gay signifier.
Moreover, I think having an agonizingly late pubertyalmost the last in my class freshman yearmade me observe the male body in a more specialized way. I'm sure you know, Tim, that being an outsider, or perceiving oneself as such, makes an individual more aware of behavioral codes: who is crossing them and how and maybe why ... outsider status generates sharper memories and a lot of art.
TM: Okay, I can't resist the annoying yet necessary question: How much of the book is autobiographical?
JAMES MAGRUDER: Without wishing to spoil any potential reader's construction of his or her own Sugarless experience, I will say that I did make two girls cry one day in Oral Comm 2 by reading "The Scarlet Ibis" aloud and was put on to speech team my sophomore year to do The Boys in the Band as a dramatic interp. I did win tournaments. I did live in a tatty subdivision called Briarcliffe in Wheaton, Ill., and my stepsister moved in for a time, and my mother found Jesus, and my stepfather was a brute who dyed his hair and kept his porn in the basement and ... I'll stop there. No, wait! One more thing: like Rick, I was the first boy in my high school to sport bikini underwear.
The problem, now that the book is out, is that I fear I shall come to believe that all of it is true. Some family members have already been told what major events did not happen.
TM: The setting of the speech contests is particularly interesting to me. ( And, of course, we all want to know what your event and material were! ) These speech contests remain crucial places for queer high school kids all over the country to represent and be seen just as Rick does with his selection from Boys in the Band. Why do you think this is?
JAMES MAGRUDER: I only realize now, with hindsight, how queer it all really was, all these gay boys in their Corn Belt Sunday best reading Robert Frost poems and interpreting Biff and Happy Loman. It must be fabulous today, what with out-and-proud kids doing scenes from Angels in America and Stop Kiss and Take Me Out and your My Queer Body. I adored speech team, and preferred it to school plays, spring musicals, reader's theatre and show choir ( all of which I did ) because I could win trophies. Finally, I had an arena in which to compete that didn't involve throwing, catching or kicking a stupid ball. I got to dress up in my Nino Cerruti three-piece every Saturday morning and go out for blood.
In my three years on speech team, I did Boys in the Band, When You Comin' Back Red Ryder? and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in dramatic interp; Moliere's The Versailles Impromptu and Perelman's The Beauty Part in humorous interp; I did a humorous duet of Israel Horowitz's It's Called the Sugar Plum that missed going to state by one point ( yes, it still hurts ) ; I did prose reading; I even did an oratorical declamation of Give 'Em Hell, Harry, about Harry Truman.
You may know, Tim, that my day job for years was as a dramaturg at Baltimore's CenterStageI know I got my start at this eggheaded specialty by watching and absorbing all those Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare and Moliere and Shaw and Coward and Neil Simon scenes in high school. Sugarless charts the birth and develo p.m. ent of both a show queen and a dramaturg.
What has been hugely interesting to discover, now that Sugarless is coming out, is just how vast the speech-team world is. When I graduated from high school, I didn't know that I could have gone to a college or university with a speech team program and kept competing. This is to the good, because I can't say I was that talented, so I went to Cornell and majored in French and became queer in dozens of new waysas in, gay boys go to France their junior year, straight boys go to England. At any rate, every day on Facebook and the Internet I discover more intercollegiate alumni associations. I've reconnected with some boys and girls ( now pushing the half-century mark ) whom I competed against thirty-some years ago.
Kids in competition is a cultural trope right nowPutnam County Spelling Bee, Bring it On, Mad Hot Ballroom, Spellbound and this season's TV hit, Glee. I am not-so-secretly thrilled that Sugarless might actually be the first book ( or play or movie ) out there that covers the crazy world of interscholastic forensics. God knows, I was terrified that someone else might get there first and preempt my chances at publication.
TM: All this and showtunes too! I love how Rick's fevered quest for Broadway cast albums mirrors his mother's discovery of Jesus. Was that intentional?
JAMES MAGRUDER: Not at first. At first, I was just having fun remembering what it felt like to find a passion. For Rick and for me and for thousands of other boys across Americapast and presentthe sound of show music works on an as-yet-undiscovered section of the gay cerebral cortex. Rick looks for clues on how to live his life from his album coversthe magical promise of Broadway, however illusory, points a way out. His records are his only friends at the beginning of Sugarless, by the end, when the chips are really down, they become his religion. I think Sondheim is the only cult I've ever joined. Well, I suppose there's Facebook, but I'm trying to cut back.
TM: The sex in the book is really honest, joyful and without the usual contemporary Palinesque sexphobic panic that generally surrounds this subject. This is quite an achievement when writing about a gay teenager! Did you struggle to keep that voice so honest in Sugarless?
JAMES MAGRUDER: Very early on, I decided that Rick would have to be a disinterested, C, C+ student just getting by, rather than the desperate-to-please overachiever I remembered being at that age. As he himself puts it, "I was never college material." That meant I would have to tone down my style, as I get crushes on ten-dollar words and complicated clauses. This decision really helped me find Rick's voice. Sex as a theory is the only thing that interests him at the beginning of the book; sex as an activity, when he starts having it, is something that he's instantly good at, or at home with, and it is what releases him, gives him color, lends him style and contour and intelligence and even a little power.
One thing I wanted to resistand I hope I have succeeded at itwas writing the paragraph that begins, "For as long as I could remember, I was attracted to other boys...." In Sugarless, Rick, as befits a perpetually horny teenage boy, can attach his erection to almost anyone. What upsets him most is when the adults in his life haven't made clear enough choices.
TM: Sugarless has a really delicious sense of place in the '70s Chicago you conjure. How important was that to you in creating this gay high school kid's world?
JAMES MAGRUDER: I had a blast recalling the Chicagoland of my adolescence: Wax Trax record store/head shops, constantly switching from WLS: to WCFL to find a better song on the radio, Piper's Carpet Warehouse commercials, The Jubilee Showcase on UHF, shoveling out after a snowstorm. I thought I remembered everything, but I did have to call my older brother for the name of the revolving restaurant on top of the Prudential Buildingthe Pinnacle.
TM: I am letting all the queer high school speech kids all over the country that are performing my work in contests know about Sugarless. Any message for our queer forensics youth?
JAMES MAGRUDER: I was knocked out watching the clips of the boys doing your work, Tim. It was another sign that the world does spin forward. To all the boys and girls in the band out there, be gracious to one another. Listen with humility. And if the author of your piece is still alive, find him or her on the internet. Last week I met Mart Crowley, the author of The Boys in the Band, in New York. That was a major, major thrill.
Find out more about more about James Magruder and Sugarless at www.jamesmagruder.com .
Tim Miller is a solo performer and the author of the books Shirts & Skin, Body Blows and 1001 Beds. ( Miller's high school dramatic-interpretation piece was from A Clockwork Orange. ) He can be reached at www.TimMillerPerformer.com .