The year is 1990, and in his hometown of Dublin, Ireland, Neil Byrne plays rugby, keeps up with the in-crowd at his school, and is just a regular guy. A guy who’s gay. It’s a secret he keeps from the wider world as he explores the city at night and struggles to figure out how to reveal his real selfand to whom. First published in Ireland in 1993 and compared to The Catcher in the Rye by critics, Tom Lennon’s When Love Comes to Town is told with honesty, humor and originality.
Tom Lennon was a pseudonym for an Irish writer who felt it necessary to conceal his identity so as not to jeopardize his teaching position at a religious high school in Dublin. He is the author of When Love Comes to Town and his book for adults, Crazy Love. He lived in Ireland until his death in 2002. James Klise is a high school librarian in Chicago, where he advises the school's book club and gay-straight alliance. He also writes novels for young people, including Love Drugged, a Stonewall Honor book, ALA Rainbow List selection, and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.
Neil rested his elbows on the window ledge, sank his chin into his hands, and stared out across the neighborhood gardens. Clothes flapped on clotheslines, birds squawked, small kids played soccer in the garden that backed onto theirs, and a couple of semi-naked diehards lay sprawled on deck chairs soaking up the watery rays of early May sunshine. At the end of his own garden, a rope with a car tire attached to the end of it dangled from the tree house that his father had built years before. Everything in the garden was in bloom. But even the fresh flowery scents couldn't change Neil's mood; Sunday afternoons were always a low point in his week.
Certain that no one was looking, he leaned out the open window and tossed the soggy, sperm-filled tissue into the next-door neighbor's bushes. Third of the afternoon. God knows what sort of flowers will sprout from that bush, he thought, lighting up a cigarette and slipping on the headphones of his Walkman. Sinead O'Connor's haunting vocals brought tears to his eyes.
Nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling
Neil made sure to blow the smoke out the window; he didn't fancy facing another of his mum's investigations. He looked at the books spread out across his desk and closed his eyes in a grimace. There was so much he had to review before the exams, but he just couldn't concentrate today. Then he glanced in the mirror, pouted, and made a face at his reflection.
Nothing compares to you
Narrowing his moist eyes into slits, he focused on a flock of gulls gliding past distant telephone lines. Lucky things, he reflected. What he wouldn't give to be able to just fly away with them. Flecks of dandruff cloud speckled the horizon sky. It was definitely a day for the beach. But the thought of being the spare prick yet again had made him use the study excuse when Gary and Trish had called.
"Jesus, you can't study all day," Gary insisted.
"The break'll do you good, Neil," Trish added, touching his arm gently.
"Plenty of time for catching rays over the summer," Neil replied with a grin. Neil always grinned, that was what they liked about him. All the fun of the fair when Neil was around. Gary and Trish, Tom and Andrea, Joe and Mary, Paddy and Niamh ...Tweedledum, Tweedledee, all the rhyming couplets were off to the beach—with Neil. "We'll have to find you a girlfriend, Neil," one of the girls would say, and Neil would lie back on the sand, cup his hands under his head, and make some smart-aleck comment like, "Only one?" And, of course, everyone would laugh. And Neil would laugh with them. But inside he felt the clawing emptiness. Sometimes he felt like he wanted to break down and tell them all about the real Neil. End all the pretense. Scream it out at the top of his voice for all the world to hear.
The bedroom door burst open and his young niece stood in the doorway, her bottle in her hand. Neil removed his headphones, switched off the Walkman, and stubbed out his cigarette quickly.
"How're you, Anniepoo?" he said, holding his arms out.
"No, Anniepoo. Nee's shoe, Nee's shoe." The sturdy two-year-old was pointing at his runners.
"Neil's cool Reeboks," Neil said, lifting his beaming niece up onto his knee. He could hear the commotion downstairs. His oldest sister Kate and her husband, Dan, along with their two kids, had arrived for their Sunday afternoon visit. His mum was showing Kate the new curtains in the dining room, his dad was chatting with Dan in the living room, while Danny, his three-year-old nephew, was running from room to room, shooting bad guys with his noisy machine gun.
"You crying?" Annie was pointing at his eyes.
Neil nodded. "I crying."
This was a signal for his niece to lean forward and place a sloppy kiss on his nose.
"I better now," Neil assured the little girl.
"Teddy, teddy," Annie said, pointing to the small teddy bear sitting on top of the chest of drawers. Neil had been given Ted by Santa Claus when he was a baby, and at his mum's insistence, it had remained in his bedroom ever since. He knew it was because he was the youngest in the family; it was her way of clinging on to the memory of happier times.
"Ted is watching you," he said, gently pressing his finger into the child's button nose.
"Nee's books, Nee's books," she said, now pointing at the desk.
"Neil's books," Neil nodded, as he stood up and hoisted the delighted child onto his shoulders.
"My bot-bot, my bot-bot," Annie squealed. Neil picked her bottle off the table and went downstairs with Annie bouncing up and down on his shoulders.
He stood outside the living room door and listened. His dad was holding court.
"You've met Chris, haven't you, Catherine?" his dad asked.
"I think so," his mum replied absently. "Doesn't he work in the advertising department?"
"The very one," his dad agreed.
"You always find them in advertising," Dan, Neil's brother-in-law, said with a guffaw.
"I mean, he doesn't hide the fact that he's one of them," his dad added, and again Dan guffawed.
Outside the door, Neil was struggling to fight back a blush.
"But, you know, a better listener you'll never find," his dad continued.
"Is that right?" Dan said in his kiss-arse voice.
"People queue up outside his office for advice on their marital problems."
"Don't exaggerate, Dad," Kate said.
"I'm telling you, they do," his dad insisted. "The man's a born therapist."
"So long as he sticks to therapy," Dan quipped, and he and Neil's dad laughed.
Neil took a deep breath and walked into the living room. Dan immediately came over to Neil and slapped his back in his rugby-club manner. "Couple of weeks now and we'll be able to go for a pint together," he said, winking to the others.
Neil grinned, trying to conceal his horror at the thought of being stuck in a pub alone with his brother-in-law.
"Our little Neiley Nook's going to be eighteen!" Kate exclaimed histrionically, clapping her hands to her face. "Oh my God, I feel ancient!"
"I must say, I'm looking forward to discovering what pubs look like from the inside," Neil said in a deadpan voice, bringing a burst of laughter from the others, especially Brendan, his dad.
"Don't mind that white lie," said Catherine, his mum, smiling uncertainly.
"The most worrying thing is that this fellow and all his pals are going to be able to vote," his dad said, and another friendly peal of laughter circled the room.
Then Neil's little nephew charged into the living room, spraying the place with imaginary bullets from his clacking machine gun.
"You're dead! You're dead!" Danny shouted.
Everyone had to moan and pretend that they were hit before the noisy gun fell silent. Then the little fellow's eyes lit up. He had spotted Neil. He dropped his gun, hurtled straight for his uncle, and wrapped his arms around his legs.
"Hulk Hogan!" Danny roared, attempting to lift Neil up off the ground.
"And the Warriors of Doom," Neil said, keeping his head bowed, afraid that his dilated pupils would betray his squalid bedroom activities.
"They love their Uncle Neil," Kate said.
"Mind the baby, Neil!" his mum warned, watching anxiously as Annie jigged up and down on his shoulders.
"So, how's the studying going?" Dan asked.
"Fine," Neil replied, adopting his best fake smile. Since Christmas, his brother-in-law had asked him the same question every time they met. He usually singled Neil out for a friendly chat, but Neil always felt awkward. Except for rugby, they had absolutely nothing in common.
"Danny, stop that!" Dan caught hold of his son who had begun to grab figurines off the mantelpiece and toss them across the room as imaginary grenades.
"Danny!" Kate shrieked.
"You're a bold boy!" Dan said to his brazen-faced son.
"It's all right," Catherine said, stooping down to pick up her precious figurines
Brendan chuckled heartily as he rubbed his grandson's hair. "No damage done." "Don't encourage him, Dad," said Kate. "You'd need eyes in the back of your head," Dan said. "Did he break them?" Kate asked. "No, no, they're fine," Catherine said. Neil saw his mum slip a broken china elephant into her pocket. Her brother, Frank, the missionary priest in Africa, had given it to her. Neil knew that he'd hear the complaints about Kate's children later. But as always in the family, nothing was ever said when it should have been.
"I've got a bit of news." Kate held her hands up theatrically, "Dan's getting a new company car next week." "Really?" Neil's mum pretended to sound delighted. "What type?" his dad asked, his eyes lighting up. Kate turned to Dan. "What type was it again, pet?" "Well, it was a choice between a Volvo and a BMW," Dan said. Neil could see that Dan was bursting with pride, though doing his utmost to appear modest. "We're taking the Volvo because we think it'll be safer for the children," Kate told them. Brendan nudged Dan. "You let her choose, did you?" "You know yourself, Bren," Dan laughed. "Don't mind him," said Kate. "Well, I think this calls for a celebratory drink," Brendan announced, taking a bottle of his homemade wine from the liquor cabinet. "And we'll even allow the young fellow a taste of things to come," he added, nodding toward Neil.
But Neil shook his head. "No, Dad, I won't, I'm just going out." Escape was imperative. There was only so much happy family chat he could endure. It was as if the same record were replayed every time they met.
"Where're you going, love?" his mum asked.
"Just out on the bike for a bit of air."
"Oh, some young one, I'll bet," his dad teased.
"Is there something we should know?" Kate looked to Catherine inquiringly.
His mum shrugged. "Sure, he tells us nothing."
"A break from my studying, Kate." Neil blushed as he lifted Annie down from his shoulders and purposely avoided his mum's searching look.
"A good-looking fellow like you should have a girlfriend," Kate said, prodding him gently.
"Only one?" Neil felt suddenly nauseous as he muttered the well-worn reply and brought the predictable macho laughter from his dad and his brother-in-law. But he was still conscious of his mum's stare.
"Whatever happened to Becky what's-her-name that you brought to your debs?" asked Kate, tweaking Neil's nose.
"That'd be tellin'," Neil said, ducking out the door. He couldn't get away fast enough now. He glanced back quickly and saw them all watching him leave.
While Neil was wheeling his bicycle out of the garden shed, he could hear his mum's voice drifting out through the open window. "He likes to go out for rides on his own," she said, but Neil could sense the pain in her voice. She knew that there was something troubling her youngest. Neil had once overheard his dad blaming his exams, but he knew that his mum wasn't convinced. Her motherly intuition told her that it was something a lot deeper than that. But her watchfulness drove Neil even further away from her. The boy who had told her everything during his younger, more carefree days was like a stranger to her now.
Neil forgot his troubles as soon as he felt the summer breeze on his face, blowing away all the bedroom cobwebs. He took a shortcut through the deserted suburban oasis of Blackrock College, past all the rugby fields that held so many vivid memories of past glories for him. He smiled as he recalled his brother-in-law Dan charging onto the Lansdowne Road field in front of twenty thousand spectators and embracing Neil after he had scored a goal in the Schools' Cup final. Neil had teased him about the lengths people go to to get their mug on television. But Dan was so taken with the achievement that he actually brought Neil's medal into his office and down to his rugby club to show it off. Look what the missus's kid brother won! Passport to any job in the country, this medal is. Neil imagined the reactions behind Dan's back. Swear he had won it himself. Idolizing a kid, what a dork.
Neil's thoughts were interrupted when Father Donnelly stepped out into his path and flagged him to stop. His brakes screeched as he skidded his bike to a halt.
"Trying to run me down?" Father Donnelly joked.
Neil grinned. "Sorry, Father, didn't see you there."
"You look like a man who's very worried about his graduation."
"Short break from the studying."
Father Donnelly rested his hand on Neil's shoulder. "I want an A on that English paper from you," he said.
"At least," Neil smiled. Father Donnelly had taught him since First Year and Neil had always been one of his favorite students.
The priest's face became serious. "Have you decided on your major?"
Neil nodded. "Liberal Arts."
"And have you told your mother and father?"
Neil shook his head. Father Donnelly squeezed his shoulder gently. "I think you should, you know."
Neil blushed. "I will after the exams are over."
The priest relinquished his grip on Neil's shoulder. "You should tell your parents these things, Neil, they'll understand. They know you a lot better than you think they do," he added absently before he bade farewell and continued on his stroll.
What was Donno getting at? Neil wondered. Had he been talking to his mum? Neil knew the priest well enough to realize that what he had just said was laden with undercurrents. Surely the old codger couldn't have guessed. No way. He was just worried that he would be seen as the one responsible for Neil's decision not to do engineering. That was it, he decided as he pressed down on his pedals and set off again through the empty school grounds.
A man with a bushy mustache was standing by the urinals, supposedly pissing, when Neil stepped cautiously into the gents' toilets on Blackrock seafront. Keeping his head down, Neil ducked into a stall and locked the door.
Water was hissing through the overhead pipes, and the faint sounds of people on the beach drifted through the vent in the concrete wall. Ignoring the pungent odors, Neil started to read the graffiti. It struck him how sad most of the comments were. Notes of desperation. Presumably sane people organizing dates on the back of a toilet door. After he had read the complete toilet-door works, he flushed the toilet and opened the stall door. His heart jumped when he saw that Bushy Mustache was still in the rest room, now pretending to wash his hands in a dingy hand basin that looked older than himself.
"You wouldn't have the time, would you?" Bushy Mustache asked in his suave voice.
"Eh, it's just past three o'clock," Neil replied, avoiding the man's lingering look. His face felt like it was on fire as he walked out of the rest room. He stayed out of view while a DART train, packed with happy day-trippers, shuttled past. Then, as he was unlocking his bicycle, Bushy Mustache appeared at the doorway of the rest room.
"Lovely day, isn't it?" he said.
"Yeah." Neil's hands were trembling as he fiddled with his combination lock. He felt the man's eyes burning right through him. He kept his head bowed, certain that with his luck, someone he knew was bound to be passing at this embarrassing moment. "Hey, Neil, saw you chatting to this bloke outside the bog in the park. You'd want to watch it, you'll get a bit of a name for yourself." Don't worry, Neil reassured himself, you'd fob them off with a grin and a joke. "Oh, he was some goer," you'd say with a mock sigh, "me arse was sore for a week after." They'd laugh, and all suspicion would be dispelled immediately.
"You don't have a light by any chance, do you?"
Oh shit, he's not giving up easily. Maybe you're giving out signals without even knowing it.
"Sorry, don't smoke."
That's it, up on your bike now and cycle away back into your safe little world, Neil thought. Leave the toilet fiend to his own devices. God, what a life, spending your Sunday afternoons in a stinking toilet. Imagine if his mother knew. Imagine if the doctor delivering the screaming baby said, "Oh missus, this boy of yours is going to spend every Sunday afternoon in a dingy toilet, attempting to lure younger men into the cubicle with him." Aaaah, she'd scream, "Murder him! Drown him like a kitten. Slit his throat from ear to ear. Gag him till he suffocates. Just get rid of him."
Quickly Neil squashed any thoughts of what his own mum would say if she could see her little fellow now.
Later that evening, Neil crossed the road as he cycled past Hollywood Nights. He didn't want to be spotted by any of the rhyming couplets who went there most weekend nights. Anytime he did go there, Neil ended up standing at the edge of the dance floor with Mal and Tony, two cynical guys from his class who spent their nights commenting on the ugliness—and the sexual availability—of the female talent. Two cynical guys with whom no self-respecting girl would dance even if they did have the nerve to ask. It was Mal who, during one of his more inventive moments, had coined the phrase "rhyming couplets." Neil hated himself for fraternizing with them, but it was better than feeling completely left out.
After locking his bike to a railing in the carpark of the Stillorgan Orchard, Neil skipped up the steps that led to the cinema. Quarter to nine. Good, he thought, he wouldn't have to stand in line and pretend he was waiting for someone.
Neil's heart sank. All the people in the line turned to look at him.
When Love Comes to Town 4 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
This is Neil Byrne's story. A young Irish man who has known he was gay since he was ten years old, he has been keeping his sexual orientation from his friends and family. He acts like the happy-go-lucky guy everyone has come to know when in reality his heart is breaking and his loneliness is eating him up inside.
I truly loved this story. Since the story took place in 1990 I could relate to the music references and the fashion, but it was Neil's sense of helplessness and his tortured soul that really touched me. Add to that the common issues teenager struggle with and I couldn't help but love him.
His voice was a wonderful mixture of humor, sarcasm and pain. He struggled with who he was every single day. He wanted to fit in, but wanted to be himself - accepted, loved just as he was. He feared his parents and friends' reactions if they ever found out he was gay and endured bigoted comments from them, while maintaining his ever present humor and smile.
Packed full with emotions, introspective narrative and interesting characters, I thought that Tom Lennon's writing was excellent. He managed to bring all sorts of emotions and events to the page that kept the reader engaged and emotionally invested Neil's story and his well being. The secondary characters were a mix of different personalities - the supportive, the indifferent and the disloyal. Every character added to the story and to Neil's development as a person. Little by little we get to see a different side of Neil. At first he was insecure and a bit lost as to what he really wanted from life, but as the story progressed we see how the interactions with the different characters has changed him, making him more assertive and looking at the world through the eyes of a grown up.
It was interesting to see how things have progressed over the years and how some issues remain the same. Today's GLBT's youth still struggle with similar problems as those Neil struggled throughout the story even though many things have improved since the 90's. James Klise's foreword brings to the front the fact that this story was written before famous people were coming out as gay and the availability of support groups was a click or a tap away.
This book was as sweet as it was heart wrenching. I laughed, I cried, I was exasperated and mad as hell, but above all else I was enlightened. When Love Comes to Town is a coming of age story that will stay with you even after you're done reading it.
I received tis title from through NetGalley in exchange of my honest opinion.
More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading When Love Comes to Town. I believe it provided a candid look at people's true reaction when faced with a loved one's coming out during the early 1990s. Neil's story is touching and Lennon build characters that are truly believable.