The World of Normal Boys

The World of Normal Boys

by K.M. Soehnlein
The World of Normal Boys

The World of Normal Boys

by K.M. Soehnlein


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Winner of the Lambda Literary Award

"This first novel is so eloquent because it is hellbent on collaring the reader and telling him or her the whole passionate story." —Edmund White, author of Our Young Man

"This is a rich and unflinching book." —The New York Times Book Review

"Extraordinary…an exhilarating experience…that Soehnlein has produced as his first novel a work of such maturity and excellence is little short of astounding." —Fenton Johnson, author of Scissors, Paper, Rock

The time is the late 1970s—an age of gas shortages, head shops, and Saturday Night Fever. The place, suburban New Jersey. At a time when the teenagers around him are coming of age, Robin MacKenzie is coming undone. While "normal boys" are into cars, sports, and bullying their classmates, Robin enjoys day trips to New York City with his elegant mother, spinning fantastic tales for her amusement in an intimate ritual he has come to love. He dutifully plays the role of the good son for his meat-and-potatoes father, even as his own mind is a jumble of sexual confusion and painful self-doubt. But everything changes in one, horrifying instant when a tragic accident wakes his family from their middle-American dream and plunges them into a spiral of slow destruction.

As his family falls apart day by day, Robin finds himself pulling away from the unquestioned, unexamined life that has been carefully laid out for him. Small acts of rebellion lead to larger questions of what it means to stand on his own. Falling into a fevered triangle with two other outcasts, Todd Spicer and Scott Schatz, Robin embarks on an explosive odyssey of sexual self-discovery that will take him beyond the spring-green lawns of suburbia, beyond the fraying fabric barely holding together his quickly unraveling family, and into a complex future, beyond the world of normal boys.

"Karl Soehnlein's stunning first novel reads like a cross between the film American Beauty and Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story." —The Advocate

"The World of Normal Boys is a work of authenticity, as relevant to those who lived a similar coming-of-age experience many years ago as it will be to those who are living that experience now." —Bay Area Reporter

"An amusingly detailed and largely accurate picture of life in the Jersey 'burbs." —Publishers Weekly

"Full of tension and suspense, Soehnlein's well-paced debut novel is a fresh look at one boy's sexual awakening in the 1970s and his journey to find a place where he can fit it." —Booklist

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496707888
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 05/31/2016
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

K.M. Soehnlein is the author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning debut, The World of Normal Boys; its sequel, Robin and Ruby; and the novel You Can Say You Knew Me When. His writing has appeared in Out, The Village Voice, San Francisco Magazine and other publications. He teaches at the University of San Francisco. Follow him @kmsoehnlein.

Read an Excerpt

The World of Normal Boys

A Novel

By K.M. Soehnlein


Copyright © 2000 K.M. Soehnlein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4967-0788-8


Maybe this is the moment when his teenage years begin. An envelope arrives in the mail addressed to him from Greenlawn High School. Inside is a computer-printed schedule of classes. Robin MacKenzie. Freshman. Fall, 1978. He has been assigned to teachers, placed in a homeroom. His social security number sits in the upper right corner, emphasizing the specter of faceless authority. Someone, some system of decision making, has organized his next nine months into fifty-minute periods, and here is his notification. This is what you will learn. This is when you will eat. This is when you go home to your family at 135 Bergen Avenue. This is how you will live your life, Robin MacKenzie.

He has climbed out his bedroom window, onto the roof that covers the kitchen and back door below, with a pile of college-ruled spiral-bound notebooks purchased earlier that day at Woolworth's. His transistor radio is tuned to WABC, just now starting up ABBA's new song "Take a Chance on Me." He bobs from his shoulders, trying to harmonize, but his voice — revolting against him all the time lately — fails to hit a high note, collapsing into an ugly squawk, a bird being choked. He looks past the garage at the end of his buckled driveway and into the next yard, the Spicers' yard, wondering if Victoria has returned from her summer visit with her cousins in Pennsylvania. He needs to compare schedules with her, to find out how many classes they'll be in together; he needs to talk to her about high school.

The Spicers' lawn is a perfect spring green, stretching out from the cement patio and redwood picnic set to a neatly trimmed hedge that separates it from his family's weedy plot. The Spicers' graystone house rises up like a small mansion: slate-tile roof, royal blue shutters, and white curtains in every window. Only one thing upsets the serenity: a rebuilt '69 Camaro jacked up in the driveway, surrounded by tools and oil spots; Victoria's brother, Todd, has been repairing the engine all summer long, since he turned seventeen and got his license.

He's there now, Todd Spicer, rolling under the hood — all but his blue jeans and work boots disappearing from view — and then back out again, sitting up to swig from a paper bag stashed behind a toolbox. His sleeveless T-shirt is smeared with a greasy handprint; his arms tense up into lean ridges as he tries to make things fit into place. Even from his perch on the roof, two yard lengths away, Robin can tell the repairs are not going well, can feel Todd emitting frustration. When the hood slams violently, he knows the afternoon has been a failure.

Todd lights up a cigarette, raises his eyes. Pins Robin in his sights.

Caught staring, Robin blushes, embarrassment jetting up his neck, saturating his ears. He waves — what else can he do? — hoping the gesture reads as casual, just friendly, not eager. He knows — the way you just know how you're supposed to act — that he shouldn't pay this kind of attention to Todd.

Todd exhales and yells up to him, "What're you looking at, Girly Underwear?"

Girly Underwear. Todd picked the name just for him. Robin has a clear memory of when it started: he was seven, Todd eleven. Todd was circling around the yard on his dirt bike while Robin and Victoria were acting out plays they had made up; without warning, Todd zoomed in to swat Robin on the butt. Having done it once, he did it again, and again. Then he pushed it further, grabbed the elastic band of Robin's underwear and tugged up. His underwear that day — to his unending regret — was tinted pink; his mother had let something bleed in the wash. From then on it was, "Hey, Girly Underwear, watch your back," "Hey, Girly Underwear, how's it hanging?"

When he was seven or eight "Girly Underwear" could make him cry. It let Todd strip him down; it was all his weaknesses rolled up in one. He'd look at himself in the mirror: the sweep of his eyelashes, the swell of his lower lip, the curve of the bones around his eyes. His face was girly. Not like Todd's face: behind Todd's eyes was a storehouse of secret knowledge — how to be cool, to be tough, to get what you want. And the tone of Todd's voice, the weight of his stare when he called out the words — it was the way a guy teases a girl, an insult that shudders like a flirtation. It used to terrify Robin. But now, after years of it — years of watching Todd, thinking about Todd — now "Girly Underwear" leaves Robin feeling less assaulted than unnerved, as if enveloped in a nameless wish — a wish like wanting to leave Greenlawn and move across the river to New York City — something you can long for all you want, though there's no guarantee you're ever going to get it. Sometimes, "Girly Underwear" echoes later in his daydreams as a command, Todd's order that Robin strip off his clothes. Sometimes, in private, with his clothes off in front of the bathroom mirror, he wonders how his body compares to Todd's, wonders what Todd's body looks like naked.

On this late-summer day, the name and the disturbing longing associated with it evoke only anger. Maybe it's the safe distance between Todd's backyard and Robin's roof that emboldens him. Maybe it's the computer-printed class schedule he's clutching in one hand, reminding him that a week from now he'll be in high school just like Todd, that he's no longer some little kid to be picked on at will. Maybe it's just ABBA telling him to take a chance. When Todd yells, "Hey, Girly Underwear," Robin gives him the finger. "Fuck you," he yells back. "That's not my name."

Robin picks up his stuff and retreats through his bedroom window, his pulse thumping at this rare display of nerve. He glances back once before pulling down the blind: Todd is still looking his way, smiling, half a smile really. He sees Robin and nods. He might, Robin lets himself believe, be impressed.

Lying on his bed, Robin opens one of his new notebooks. High school. The hallways will be filled with boys, the speeding train of their conversation echoing off metal lockers. He thinks about popular boys from middle school, the jocks, boys whose names everyone knows. Their presence is inescapable, their actions gossiped about, their dating patterns speculated on by lesser beings like him and Victoria Spicer during late-night phone marathons. Popular boys are like TV stars: you don't have to know them to have opinions about them. You can spend your time imagining how they will react to something you've said out loud in class, or something you're wearing, when in fact they don't even know you exist.

On the top of a page he writes: TAKE SOME CHANCES.

Must make an effort to make friends with guys
Should get into a fight to prove myself
Should find a sport to play
Get a girlfriend
Tell jokes in class — people like that
Have not yet learned to smoke (buy cigarettes)
Should stop making it so easy for other people telling me what to do, etc.

The list pours out effortlessly, his handwriting uncontrolled, the tip of his ballpoint pen chiseling the soft paper. It's all so obvious — it's everything that he doesn't do. Everything normal. At the bottom of the page he writes, "Pick one to do everyday!" and underlines it twice.

The next day Victoria gets back from her cousins. Robin is mowing the Feeneys' lawn, another lawn in a summer of lawns he has taken on at three dollars a pop. He wears his work clothes — cutoff shorts and Keds and tube socks, all licked with mint-colored grass stains. Victoria is a gusher of stories about her Pennsylvania trip: the excursion to Hershey Park, the raft ride down the Delaware, the trip to the Colonial hot spots of Philadelphia. Her return is not the reunion he'd looked forward to: for months, he's been pushing the mower around the neighborhood, with just a couple of trips to New York City with his mother to break up the monotony, while she's been hanging out at a swim club, going to parties, letting some guy named Frank stick his hand under her bikini top. By the end of the afternoon he has nothing to say to her. She has her high school schedule to show him, but it yields only disappointment — they have no classes together. Without warning he jerks the starter cable for the mower. The clamor swallows up Victoria's voice and seals him into his own bubble of envy. Watching her strut away in her new pink satin jacket, like some tough-girl out of Grease, he can predict she'll fit right in at Greenlawn High. Hands in pockets, shoulders back, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans accentuating her developing body, she looks like she's getting away from him.

Todd is staring across the hedge. "Hey —"

"Don't say it," Robin interrupts.

"What?" All innocence in Todd's voice.

"You know. Don't call me that name anymore." He pushes the lawn mower back into the garage. Speaking to Todd like that, telling him what to do, gives him the jitters — something bad is bound to follow.

Todd is still standing there when Robin walks out of the garage. "All right, cool out, man. Robin."

Robin. Not "Girly Underwear." It isn't quite an apology, but he relaxes a little. He looks Todd in the eyes.

"So," Todd says, shifting his gaze away. "So, you wanna cut my lawn for me?"

"I thought your mother had a landscaper."

"That faggot quit, and now my father wants me to do it."

Robin shrugs his shoulders. "I charge three dollars."

Todd shakes his head. "No, see the idea is like this: you cut the lawn, and I give you a break on calling you — you know, that name."

His face is so sure of itself, Robin thinks. He sputters out, "Like I can believe you? I'm not stupid, Todd. I'll cut your lawn, and then you'll just go ahead and call me whatever name you want."

Todd moves a step closer, lowers his voice. "That's the risk you take. That's what life is about, man. Especially in high school. Taking risks. Don't ya think?"

Robin stares in amazement. Has Todd been reading his notebook? Or is he just reading his mind? "I don't know."

Todd's face falls. "Man, I'm not getting any money from my Dad for doing it, so I can't pay you. How about if I give you a jay?"

"A what?"

"You know." He pinches his thumb and middle finger and mimics inhaling.

Robin gets the reference. "I don't think so." He turns to walk away, but Todd is suddenly through the hedge, right there at his back.

"Think about it," Todd says, and swats him on the ass.

Each step across the lawn, back to his house, he feels that pull. That magnetic thing Todd sends out like he's an evil Jedi Knight wielding The Force. The smell of cut grass and gasoline on his fingers, and Todd's voice echoing back at him. "Think about it." How weird to have Todd making some strange deal with him, Todd wanting him to take a chance.

His mother had taken him to R-rated movies a couple of times — usually on their City Day, when they take the bus into New York, just the two of them — but she outright refused to let him see Saturday Night Fever.

"Gratuitous," she pronounced its violence and sexual content, though she hadn't seen it herself. Robin suspected her objection arose from her dislike of John Travolta, whom Robin had become fascinated with ever sinceGrease; no, it went back even further, to Welcome Back, Kotter, a show everyone Robin's age had watched devoutly when it first premiered, but which Dorothy blamed for inflicting base expressions into her children's conversation: "Up your nose with a rubber hose," "Get off my case, toilet face." Saturday Night Fever elicited from Dorothy more than one harangue about disco and polyester and John Travolta, all of which Robin couldn't get enough of.

Robin reads that night in the Living section of the Bergen Record that the studio has announced Saturday Night Fever will be reissued as a PG. Robin is all resentment: a PG version! They're going to cut all the good parts! He checks the movie timetable: the R- rated version is still playing at the Old Tappan Drive-In. Someone has to take him to see this version before it is pulled. Someone seventeen or older.

The plan comes to him the next day, when the roar of an engine from the Spicers' yard catches his attention. Todd's Camaro is fixed! Todd could take him to see Saturday Night Fever, and in exchange, Robin can mow the Spicers' lawn for Todd. Forget about the "Girly Underwear" reprieve, Robin reasons, there is no way to make it stick. He brings the plan to Victoria, prepared to have to talk her into it, knowing how much she hates spending any time with her brother, but it takes no effort at all. She wants to see the R-rated version as much as he does. Apparently Frank had seen it, and it was one of his favorites.

Todd's reaction: "No fucking way I'm taking you to some sucky disco movie."

Robin: "We'll pay for our own tickets."

Victoria: "You don't even have to watch it. You can bring a date and make out in the backseat."

That part hadn't been Robin's idea, but it seemed to tip the scales for Todd.

The Camaro rushes from the end of Mill Pond Road, slicing open the afternoon quiet. Robin raises his face from the green of the lawn to meet the speed in the air. Sunlight on the glass and chrome, a blur of black metallic paint, the skid of rubber as Todd torpedoes into the driveway. Victoria protests the display — the noise, the skidmarks, the plume of gray exhaust. Todd struts out, lording over everything he sees.

Robin is mesmerized. This sweetens the deal, Todd eyeing the lawn, nodding approval at his work, shaking his hand. "OK, buddy. Looks like I'm taking you to the disco movie." Buddy. Robin wishing that it would be just the two of them, no Victoria, no date for Todd. Robin and Todd, he whispers to himself. Buddies. just the two of them, no Victoria, no date for Todd. Robin and Todd, he whispers to himself. Buddies.

When Mrs. Spicer gets home, she rewards Todd with a kiss on the forehead for his yard work. Robin takes note: how easily Todd accepts this undue praise. How he gloats.

It's been a long time since he prayed to God. He's never been led to believe that praying was particularly important. His father's obscure Protestant background, combined with a few years of his mother's halfhearted stabs at raising them Catholic — the showy display of First Communion, the endless hours of Sunday School — have all added up to a lot of nothing. They've become what his grandmother, Nana Rena, refers to as "A&P Catholics" — "ashes and palms," people who go to church when they can bring home something to show for it. Even on those occasions when he sits through mass at St. Bartholomew's, Robin prefers silence over talking to God. Why would he expect anything from a Heavenly Father when he rarely asks for anything of his earthly father? If he needs something, he turns to his mother.

But now he has a secret to keep from her, and so he finds himself, without quite planning it, lying in bed, eyes raised upward, his hand moving into the Sign of the Cross. It is the night before Saturday Night Fever. He whispers out loud, "God, make it go OK."

Across the room, in the other bed, his younger brother sits up. "What'd you say?"


"You said something to God," Jackson persists, a mocking amusement in his voice. Persistence is one of Jackson's trademarks. Unlike Robin, who tends to walk away from conflict, Jackson grabs hold and forces the issue. It's only one of their differences. In a new situation, Robin hangs back and observes, while Jackson gravitates impulsively toward the center, harnesses energy, and quickly begins spinning trouble. He laughs easier, has more friends — more guy friends; he is rambunctious where Robin is tentative. Jackson's half of their room gleams with brassy Little League trophies, Star Wars action figures, a colorful array of baseball caps lined up on his dresser; Robin has postcards bought at museum gift stores, a short stack of Broadway cast albums at the foot of his bed, scrapbooks stuffed with ticket stubs and matchbook covers collected on his trips to the city. The room's only shared territory is a nightstand between the twin beds, lined with Hardy Boys books that they've both read, Robin first, Jackson several years later.

When they were young, both in elementary school, they could play together and have fun; the two of them, with their sister Ruby — be — tween them in age — could spend hours drawing pictures or creating elaborate plays to be enacted in the backyard or basement. Gradually this shifted; Jackson shifted away from them. Now he only liked games that could be won; now he shows up at the house with a group of friends, who divide up into teams and shout their way through competition, all along making fun of the slowpokes and spazzes.

"Dear God: This is Robin MacKenzie," Jackson squawks. "Please make me not be such a jerkface." He forces out a belly laugh for emphasis.

In silence, Robin amends his prayer. "And, God, could you please make something bad happen to Jackson?"


Excerpted from The World of Normal Boys by K.M. Soehnlein. Copyright © 2000 K.M. Soehnlein. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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