Book review: Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard

(cover image courtesy Fremantle Press)

Growing up gay, especially in a country town, comes with a multitude of odious compromises.

And by compromises, we really mean outright theft of mind, body and soul, as you struggle mightily to disguise the obvious in a town where even the most subtle of things seems to eventually exist as a neon-lit billboard for all to see.

Every single day becomes an agonising decision-making process or a fraught review of something you did when your guard momentarily came down and you let yourself, oh the horrors, be truly you.

Such is the pressure, the neverending, exhausting pressure, to appear to be something you are not, that you will yourself to be unseen, something with which the three main characters in Holden Sheppard soul-incising, emotionally-excoriating book Invisible Boys are painfully familiar.

Bad boy emo-goth-punk Charlie Roth, nerdily studious good Catholic boy Zeke and high school jock and ladies’ man Hammer aka Kade, all 16-year-olds and still coming to terms with life, the universe and straight everything, all live their lives, to one degree or another, in a world that doesn’t exist.

It’s one where you are one thing to a judging outside world which brings down the gavel of judgement blindingly and woundingly fast, and entirely another thing to yourself and those you trust, which when you’re in the closet is a number that is close to zero.

Truth be told, it usually is zero because one chink in the protective armour, one moment where you lose control and cease to be ruthlessly, unceasingly vigilant could lead to your world caving in, the consequences too disastrous to contemplate.

“There are two ways out of this poxy shithole of a town: you leave in a blaze of glory and never look back, or you die.
I don’t want to die.
I’ve wanted the blaze of glory option since I was a little kid.” (P. 7)

At least, that’s the narrative you tell yourself as you duck and weave, dissemble and lie, pretend and cover-up, day after horrifically tiring, soul-sapping day.

The toll this takes on you is illuminated in heartstoppingly familiar fashion by Sheppard, a gay YA author from Geraldton author who admits that each of the three characters that power this freeing novel are a part of him and his journey out of the closet (though not the events in the book which he says are for the greater part fictional).

The same is likely true for any of us who have had to endure the realisation that we are gay – “endure” may seem a strange word to use but the reality is when you’ve grown up in a heteronormative world such as say the church, the idea you may not be one of the flock is distressing, an unwelcome epiphany for which that word is the only fit description – and then had to navigate the road to coming out to a world which, for all its advances, still likes its inhabitants to conform to easily understood and described and universally approved parameters.

Depart from them, oh ye of the queer ilk, and the road will be long and hard, often of your own making, as you try to work out how on earth the revelation that you are gay can be made into something real and tangible, one that has a future, and meaningful reason for being.

The beauty of Invisible Boys, which is written with a mix of humour, empathy and incisive insight, is that it somehow manages to be upliftingly hopeful at a time when you can feel like the world is crashing down upon you.

(image courtesy Fremantle Press)

The tragedy of this, as Sheppard underlines in ways big and small, is that what should a time of discovery and hope, possibility and exciting road-to-adulthood change, instead becomes a minefield of loss, pain, fear, guilt and a hellish, unending weight upon your very soul.

That last phrase may sound needlessly melodramatic unless you have lived the life Charlie, Zeke and Hammer do, unless you have had to hide every trace of you who really are from family, friends, schoolmates, and the wider world.

Trying to come to terms with the truth of your sexuality and the bomb this places under your own expectations and those of people near and dear to you, or at least near to you – none of the boys have what you might close warm and close family relations but then those ties, or their closeness anyway, are often pieces of collateral damage in your endless war with yourself – while simultaneously trying to discover the myriad joys of life does a number on you.

A massive, head-fucking, soul-twisting, mind-warping number on you, and you can see how much it affects the average person coming to terms with their sexuality in the heart-rendingly honest stories of Charlie, Zeke and Hammer (and their friend Matt whose story turns out to be especially poignant) who are forced to hide themselves over and over again to the point where the only end point is an explosive emotional reaction of some kind.

The kind of violent emotional catharsis for which there is simply no place in your toxically buttoned-down world.

Quite how corrosive this becomes is obvious again and again as the three boys try and fail to find freedom, camaraderie and even love (until, of course finally, they do and they don’t).

“My heart is giving off more kilotons of heat than a nuclear bomb. I gaze at Matt, feel his arms clutching me, smell his scent, and everything else in the world goes up in smoke. I want him more than I’ve ever wanted anything. I lean forward and press my lips against his, and he kisses me back – warm, wet kisses, tongues dancing and hearts drumming to a tune only we can hear.
Everlong. (P. 209)

Its true import and effect is felt in a series of stream of consciousness letters from an unnamed person (it only becomes clear towards the end who this is) that punctuate the book, all of them windows into a soul that has been blistered and burned by pressure so great that the only way out seems to be a very final one.

Sheppard is unflinchingly truthful about how easy it is to feel like death is the only way out but at the same time, he speaks upliftingly about how much hope, lust, the thrill of the authentic and the new and the wonder of what might be if you can only get there, past the myriad obstacles of your thought processes and bigotry and lack of understanding of those around you, counter this in ways that seem to run against all “sound” reason at the time.

But then doesn’t that speak to the delightfully contrary and tenacious power of the human soul?

You can throw the very worst of things at it, all of which for a young man must often be experienced in a closeted bubble so suffocatingly intense that seeing and feeling clearly through it feel all but impossible, and yet somehow it bounces back and pushes on froward, hoping, praying, desperately pleading for some kid of break.

Invisible Boys feels like an exquisitely well-written, heartfelt, real searchlight on your soul if you’re a gay man (and even if you’re not, it’s a valuable, eye-opening look into what your gay sons, nephews, etc are going through as they grow up, one hand on the trigger, the other on the starting gun), reminding you of the times you were scared, lustful, worried, resolute, happy, uncertain and excited … and how ultimately how glad you are to be you, to be gay, in a world which prefers you to be invisible and which doesn’t make it easy at all to get to that point.

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