Book review: First Time For Everything by Henry Fry

(courtesy Penguin Random House)

No matter who you are, growing is never, ever easy.

It becomes significantly less easier when you have the audacity to be born singularly unable to march to the beat of a mainstream drum, a “failing”, so the gatekeepers of what is normal and correct, by society’s standards anyway, that you must rectify by trying to blend in as best you can.

It’s what a lot of queer people do; faced with inevitable condemnation and opprobrium, often most harshly, though of course it can often sadly continue on well into adult years, through their school years, they become masterful chameleons shifting and changing to always look the part that it is unceremoniously demanded they play.

So, the narrowminded and the bigots, and even heteronormative bystanders who think normal is what they are, are appeased but what about the poor queer person? They are often left a messy cocktail of assumed and real identities, so blendered together that working who you are and what is what can be a devilishly hard thing to do.

Someone who evidently and empathetically knows about this harshly unforgiving dynamic, is Henry Fry who at the beginning of his funny, heartfelt and at times confrontingly painful novel, First Time For Everything, quotes a tweet sent out by writer and campaigner @alexand_erleon which immediately strikes a chord with any queer person who’s had to navigate between their authentic selves and the apparition they concoct to stay afloat in a world that constantly demands their acquiescence.

“Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.” (Read his full essay)

“I stare from him [Tobbs] to the phone, where it’s zzz-zzz-zzz-ing on my palm. My chest is so tight I can barely breathe, let alone speak to my parents, pretending everything is normal.

He swoops down and kisses me on the mouth. Though it’s brief, my spine melts. He’s an amazing kisser.

‘Bye, boyo.’

He turns and slips away, with that funny swoopy walk where he sways from side to side with each stride, like a sprig in a breeze. And I feel my heart break a little.” (P. 53)

Reading that for this reviewer, and yes I am gay, was a revelation of sorts, as is the entirety of First Time For Everything which feels like the messy second growing up of my life laid bare.

It is impossible if you’re queer, and honestly even if you’re not since all of, to some extent or another, have a lot of unlearning of self to do between childhood and adulthood, not to identify extraordinarily heavily with the protagonist of the book, Danny Scudd, a 27-year-old gay guy in London who, on the surface, has got it all together.

He has a job writing for a start-up cultural website called CULTRD, lives with Laura, an old friend from high school and her boyfriend Luke, who’s blokey but friendly, and has his BFF from his hometown of Whistlecombe, Jacob, close by, a flamboyant and then some, gloriously unapologetic non-binary avant garde artiste who long ago gave up caring what anyone else thought. (He essentially had to since his queerness was so evidently and vibrantly there even as a kid that pretending otherwise was a journey not even worth undertaking.)

Thrilled to have escaped life above his parents’ fish-and-chip shop, he has by any metric you care to toss at him, made it.

But then he discovers, via an SYI clinic that his strangely unaffectionate boyfriend Tobbs may be cheating on him, and with little to no notice he is asked to move out by Laura and Luke who have some big changes on the way and need their spare room back.

(courtesy Penguin Random House)

In no time flat, Danny has his carefully curated world, thriving collection of houseplants and a gloriously fabulous Dolly Parton triptych and all, rent asunder, his only solution to move in with Jacob and his collection of normalcy challenging housemates, none of us from trans man Ashraf to gorgeously loud and proud lesbian Melania, care a joy for assuming any other identity than their own.

Suddenly confronted by people who seem entirely comfortable in their avowedly non-conformist queer skin, Danny finally, and belatedly, with the help of therapist Nina and his housemates who quickly become family whether he wants them to or not, starts to ask himself who he is exactly.

It’s a rocky, messy and thoroughly chaotic journey that makes immediate sense if you have ever gone through the same process yourself, forced to peel back the layers of the proverbial onion, desperately hoping that there is something of worth and substance sitting there at the centre.

The wonder and deeply affecting beauty of First Time For Everything is that it captures every last part of this journey from playacting to something approach the real you with searing honesty, charm and galloping good humour and an understanding sense of how big an undertaking it is.

Like every last queer person who’s had to de-chamelion-ise themselves, Danny gets some things right, lots of things wrong, hurting himself and inadvertently others in the process.

If growing up wasn’t easy, then unlearning to find your authentic is its often cruel and unyielding younger sibling, determined to drag you to hell and back on the greatest existential treasure hunt of them all.

“As a teenager, I wanted to be good at things. I felt like this would make up for it. It was better to be known as the clever try-hard than the faggot, I remember thinking to myself as I got another A* piece back about Macbeth’s ‘Out, brief candle’ monologue. I watched what I said, how I said it, how I sat, who I spoke to. I acted pretty well for a long time, until all that stuff with Will happened. Then I took the shit, silently, until I could escape to London.

But then, even as an adult, I made myself acceptable. I didn’t offend straight people. I was all right to have around, but never the life of the party. I wouldn’t come on to you, because I was essentially sexless. I wouldn’t fight you if you said something that was ‘just a joke’. I didn’t realise how exhausting the charade had become. I just did it, because I’d always done it. But that can’t go on. That’s very clear to me now.” (P. 325)

Watching Danny grapple with a host of big and small questions from whether he’s quiet or loud gay, whether he does or doesn’t have firm opinions, if he’s happy being BBFs with Jacob or not, and even what kind of dress style is really, truly him, hits intensely close to home if you’ve been done there and done that.

That’s not a bad thing since it makes you reassess where you are on your journey; if you’re well advanced like this reviewer who spent many years closeted in the Church, you will find much to make you roll your eyes in recognition, and if you’re just starting out or in the midst of it, you’ll well understand the tumult of trying to sort fact from fabrication.

Honestly though wherever you sit on the authenticity scale, or even if you’re a straight friend or family member of someone in the queer sphere, First Time For Everything is a revelatory joy to read, holding back the curtains to the inner workings of a community that has so many wonderful things to commend but which often grappled with who or what it actually is.

A beguiling and empathetic mix funny and profound with characters so finely etched and vigorously alive that you will fall in love with them all without exception (Tobbs, perhaps, excepted), First Time For Everything is a gloriously liberating and joyfully heartfelt novel to read as we walk with Danny through the good and the bad, the headily upbeat and the agonisingly downbeat, and discover what while finding yourself can be a hell’s own path to chaotic misery as much as thrilling happiness, it’s worth undertaking if only to meet the real you and find out where they fit in a world which is finally going to be forced to make way for you, whoever the hell you end up being.

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