by Jean Roberta
The most recent book I've read is Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers by Steve Berman, newly released by his publishing company, Lethe Press. The version I received weeks ago was a PDF of the pre-publication, unedited manuscript, with some illustrations, and some spaces where illustrations would be placed later.
I’m still not sure whether I think the illustrations by various artists are a good idea. The sketches of teenage boys and fanciful imaginary beings capture a certain high-school ambience, but there is a delicate enchantment in the words themselves that lends itself better to imagination alone.
After Steve Berman’s young-adult fantasy novel, Vintage (about an openly-gay high-school boy in New Jersey who has a kind of romance with the ghost of a popular boy who died in the 1950s) received rave reviews in 2008, the author himself complained that he couldn’t repeat his success. This is a common fear among writers, since no one can rewrite the same book and still produce something new.
The current collection of stories is obviously not a repeat of Vintage. Berman doesn’t use formulas. What it shows, however, is his amazing ability to channel his inner teenager: to write with the skill of an adult writer in his prime about the larger-than life hopes, fears, giddy excitement and suicidal desperation of a person in that grey area between childhood and adulthood.
Very few writers seem able to do this well, possibly because (to draw on my own memories), adolescence combines intense emotions with a limited ability to express them. And spending most of each weekday in high school combines the experience of being institutionalized with opportunities to find a soul-mate.
The Red Caps in the title are an elusive band that are always off-stage, but the narrators of the stories collect souvenirs of them, such as red caps. The name also suggests a euphemistic term for pills which could cause hallucinations.
In “Most Likely,” the young, gay-male narrator discovers a magical high school yearbook in which school photos are accompanied by captions that express the real thoughts of students who would never write them down for others to see. This is a kind of hyper-realism which is both perfectly logical and literally unbelievable. In this story, the narrator is rescued from pouring rain by the object of his crush, who feels the same way about him. Without the magically intimate words, they probably wouldn’t have connected.
There is a droll humour in most of these stories that reaches a peak in “Gomorrahs of the Deep, a Musical Coming Someday to Off-Broadway.” Greg, the narrator, is lucky enough to have a boyfriend in school, and their relationship is tolerated by their classmates and teachers. However, Greg doesn’t want to push his luck. He is alarmed when his boyfriend announces his plan for a presentation in English class:
“’I’m going to do a whole presentation—not some sixth-grader’s book report—on the homoeroticism in Moby Dick.’
Greg recklessly tells him: 'You might as well sing it.'
Later, when Greg is walking home alone, "I soon heard my boyfriend’s car whining behind me. When he rolled down the window, music from the radio filled the air. Then he sang:
Get in the car. It’s cold. Don’t be so angry all the time.
I kept walking, but more slowly.
Get in the car. Don’t make me beg. Don’t make me rhyme.
I stopped and turned.
Don’t call me Ishmael.
‘I won’t.” he said. “Your name is Greg.’
I took a step forward, resting my hands on the open car window.
Tell me you won’t go through with this. Tell me that tomorrow will be sane.
He shook his head.
I can’t. I won’t. Don’t you see? That would go against my grain.
They’ll laugh at you and, if I stand by you, me as well.
What else does English class do than make our lives a hell?
It’s only Melville.”
This probably wouldn’t seem laugh-out-loud funny to every reader, but as an English instructor, I was charmed.
Two stories that are fantasy from beginning to end, and not necessarily about teenagers in a modern sense, are “Thimbleriggery and Fledglings” (a lesbian retelling of the Swan Lake story) and “Steeped in Debt to the Chimney Pots” (an ambitious, atmospheric tale about a hard-luck young man who falls in with bad company—the fairy folk—in Victorian London). These two stories are well worth reading, but they seem only marginally related to the stories about magic that arises from the ordeals of contemporary teenage life.
Altogether, this collection is greater than the sum of its parts. It will suck you in like a phantom lover or a dream that seems more real than your waking life. The storyteller’s magic still works.