Monday, February 25, 2013

Dispatch From The Field: "I was enchanted by the characters’ voices," says Joe


These Things Happen takes place right now, even as we speak … it’s the tale of a modern family, set among Manhattan’s progressive, liberal elite, the adults all prominent in their professions, rearing their children to be the same, confident that nothing much can harm them, ever.

The story starts when Wesley Bowman 16, sharp and funny and defiantly individual, moves downtown from his book editor mother’s home on the Upper East Side home to live with his father and his partner for the fall term of school; Wesley, becoming a man, feels the time has come for him to more closely know (his words here) the “man from whom I did, actually, spring.” Kenny, who came out after his marriage to Wesley’s mom ended, is a much-honored gay-rights lawyer, a regular on Rachel Maddow, Charlie Rose, a frequent contributor to the Op-ed page of the New York Times.

But Wesley, when he moves in, finds his father distant and inaccessible; he has much more luck connecting with his father’s partner, George, a former actor/dancer who now runs a theater district restaurant. George is present, genuinely interested, fully at ease with himself; all the things Kenny is not. He and Wesley become like father and son, really, and not because George is in any way trying to supplant Kenny. It’s just that these things happen.

Then everything changes. When Wesley’s closest friend surprises him and everyone else when, after being elected class president, he comes out at the end of his acceptance speech. the two boys find themselves at the center of an act of violent, homophobic bullying (even though Wesley is straight). Within the family, tolerant facades crumble as George, suddenly, becomes suspect. Wesley’s mom values and cares for him, and has worked to have a relationship with him, as she suspects this will assure the presence of Kenny in Wesley’s life. But, now, with Wesley in the hospital being held for observation (“When did I,” she wonders, “turn into someone whose kid is held for observation?”) isn’t it her duty to wonder and worry about what might have been going on when her back was so progressively turned? Did she fail to keep her son safe? Does she, indeed, know him? Does she know George, so delightful and pleasing, an author of agreeable evenings? And, more worryingly, does this accomplished, insightful, deeply curious woman really, in the end, know herself?

These Things Happen is a sharp, laugh-out-loud funny, ultimately deeply moving story about the way we live now and the alertness and awareness we have to cultivate in order to do it. It’s about the assumptions we all unknowingly hold that we take in from the culture around us, no matter how free from “all that” we think we might be; the received convictions just beneath the surface that need only the right spark to catch fire. In this novel that fire burns its way through the stories all the characters tell themselves about themselves; no one is who they were at the start, and all must find the courage to truly, for the first time, face who they are.

Joe says:
"The definition of family is not set in stone. There are many factors that make up what a family is. For the characters in Richard Kramer’s engrossing debut novel, These Things Happen, their definition of family has been shaped by divorce, remarriage of the mother and the coming out of the father. Wesley has moved in with his father and his father’s partner, George, in their small, Manhattan Theater District apartment for a few months, so he can get to know his father better. His father is a man devoted to gay causes, sought-after by the media, and politicians, and other important people. He doesn’t go anywhere without his phone, and ends up being able to devote precious little time to his son. George, his partner, becomes the de-facto guardian of Wesley. George had a theater career when he was young, but now runs a restaurant just downstairs from their apartment. Wesley’s best friend, Theo, comes out as he gives his acceptance speech as class president, but that speech brings shattering results to the two friends.  Wesley’s mother says some things that even she didn’t know were true to her way of thinking, and Wesley, Theo, George, and Wesley’s father all most decide what it means to be family.

The story is told from the perspective of several characters, with each character’s perspective moving the story line along. In some books, this type of storytelling can be contrived, or inconsistent. Kramer, though, uses this device to its fullest extent, telling the story through the voices of its characters, all of whom have struggled (or currently are) with what it means to be family, to be successful, to live in New York… And though this is a very Manhattan-centric story, but the struggle the characters endure is universal. I was enchanted by the characters’ voices, especially those of Wesley, Theo, and George.

As an adult in his 40’s, I am the same age as most of the adult characters. But this is a multi-generational tale, and I remember the struggles of being a teenager (not only coming to terms with my sexuality, but beginning to come to terms with the even more massive and pressing concern: what am I going to do with my life?) Kramer does a great job of making both ages’ viewpoints accessible and through these voices, highlights how far along things have come… When George and Kenny (Wesley’s father) were teenagers, there was no social support for gay youth, things were still coded and hidden under fear of physical, legal, or social oppression. Not everything’s perfect yet, as the story deftly shows, but we’ve come a long, long way…

These Things Happen is a great book of what it means to be an American in the early 21st century. We have the power to solve what ails us, societally, and as I think Kramer shows us, that’s first to solve what ails us personally."

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