When Love Comes To Town
Conflict is the sine qua non of a page-turner. A novel can have beautiful prose and well-drawn characters, but unless the protagonist is facing ass-kicking adversity at the outset, the reader will be hard-pressed to turn its pages. Tom Lennon's "When Love Comes to Town" has all the trappings of a good YA novel, except that the element of conflict kicks in too late.
It's Dublin, 1993. Neil is finishing high school. He is a rugby star. Father Donnelley hands him the award for Excellence in English. The auditorium bursts into applause.
Neil's parents are proud of him. So are his sister Kate and her husband Dan. Neil is their children's favorite uncle. His brothers live in New York and want him to come visit. His sister Jackie and her boyfriend Liam are also fond of him. The biggest bone of contention between him and his folks is that they want him to major in business and he wants to major in liberal arts.
Neil has lots of friends. They have lots of fun. Still, Neil thinks he can only trust his best friend Becky with his dark secret--he's gay. Becky does a spit-take. Neil, gay? No one would ever suspect. But she's cool with it and they go on to talk about boys.
Days later, Neil walks right into a gay bar without even having to take a few running starts. He's nervous but, without even having to sink a few drinks, he manages to flirt with an older man and gets home in one piece. From there, he comes out to his sister Jackie and her boyfriend over a joint--and waddya know! They're cool with it too! And they go to the gay bar with him next time and Neil makes friends there.
This is what the first half of "When Love Comes to Town" looks like. Neil doesn't face bullying or rejection like many, if not most, gay teens. He can pass for straight and, when it comes time to come out, he has a ready-set group of new friends and romances all lined up for him. It's too smooth a ride for too many chapters.
The action picks up in the second half, though. As Neil goes deeper into Dublin's gay scene, he'll find himself always looking over his shoulder for haters, whether on the street or in the media. Not all friends prove true and not every family member welcomes him out like Jackie does. He befriends an outlandish character who is dying of AIDS. Father Donnelley might not judge, but Neil finds there are a whole lot of others in the Church who'd throw him into the lake of fire themselves if they could. One love interest hits the skids while a better one remains out of reach. Neil's loneliness becomes palpable. The story finally starts getting good.
To this day, we do not know the true identity of the novel's author, who published "When Love Comes to Town" in 1993 under the pseudonym Tom Lennon, because he taught at a Catholic school and didn't want to be found out. Albert Whitman & Company is releasing the US edition for the first time next month to show what gay teens were going through in the days before the internet or gay-straight alliances in schools.
Those of us who were Neil's age back then had a titanic sense of what we were up against when coming out, but Neil doesn't seem to have an inkling of the danger and grief that await him. When Neil is in the closet, his loneliness seems wistful at worst. The first series of portraits of his life are too rosy and devoid of foreboding. It's a long time before we get to the good stuff.
"When Love Comes to Town"
Albert Whitman & Company
Publication Date: March 1, 2013