In Lambda Literary Foundation President of the Board S. Chris Shirley’s new Magnus Books novel “Playing by the Book,” more, much more education is in store for naïve, sheltered 17-year-old Jacob Henry Powell, son of a strict One-Way Bible fundamentalist Christian minister and editor of the small-town Tarsus (Alabama) High School Tattler, than learning how to write for a professional newspaper, when he comes to New York to attend the Columbia University Summer in Journalism program for student editors.
Aided and abetted by his sophisticated Aunt Phoebe, his Auntie Mame figure, who harbors a few dark secret “thorns,” as Jake calls them, of her own, our hero finds the Big, Bad, Sexy City. And scarcely able any longer to repress the feelings that fly directly in the face of his religious upbringing, he finds he’s irresistibly attracted to his handsome, Jewish, quite openly gay and political classmate Sam Horowitz from Los Angeles, who’s “wearing nothing but skimpy orange briefs” when Jake first feasts hungry eyes on him.
Needless to say, there’s no room for gay in Jake’s father, the Preacher’s “One-Way or the highway” church! This bracing cultural clash is central to the story that Shirley sets before us. And to someone to whom even Episcopalians are suspect, meeting Jews, a Sikh, and a Muslim Senator-elect, not to mention all the gays, as Jake does, is an eye-opening shocker. One-Way women, in Jake’s experience, know their very limited place, but strong, influential female characters here, beside Aunt Phoebe, include not only Jake’s worldly new classmate Julie Aaron, but also Jake’s own Momma, who are his allies more than he, at first, realizes.
“Playing by the Book,” meaning the Bible, is billed as Young Adult fiction, but you don’t have to be 17 to appreciate the coming out, coming of age story that Shirley, in his debut novel, recounts. No matter what the reader’s age, he or she is bound to get caught up in Jake’s struggle with self-discovery and first awareness of gay social life, politics, sex, and romance, as well as AIDS and HIV, and in the daunting challenge the Preacher has dealt him—will Jake bring home an award from Columbia or be obliged to go to seminary and follow in his father’s footsteps?
You may, along the way, trip over the fact that Shirley seems to expect of his erudite, undoubtedly classically-educated readership a working knowledge of ancient Greek, written in the Greek alphabet. He usually translates his Sophocles, Socrates, or Biblical passages, but never transliterates them, and only easy-to-figure-out words, like eros and agape, come across loud and clear without one’s resorting to a Greek dictionary. This, however, hardly diminishes appreciation for Shirley’s endeavor.
“Playing by the Book” is priced at $19.99 for paperback and $9.99 for ebook.