In this tender-hearted debut, set against the tumultuous backdrop of life in 1973, when homosexuality is still considered a mental illness, two boys defy all the odds and fall in love.
The year is 1973. The Watergate hearings are in full swing. The Vietnam War is still raging. And homosexuality is still officially considered a mental illness. In the midst of these trying times is sixteen-year-old Jonathan Collins, a bullied, anxious, asthmatic kid, who aside from an alcoholic father and his sympathetic neighbor and friend Starla, is completely alone. To cope, Jonathan escapes to the safe haven of his imagination, where his hero David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and dead relatives, including his mother, guide him through the rough terrain of his life. In his alternate reality, Jonathan can be anything: a superhero, an astronaut, Ziggy Stardust, himself, or completely "normal" and not a boy who likes other boys. When he completes his treatments, he will be normalat least he hopes. But before that can happen, Web stumbles into his life. Web is everything Jonathan wishes he could be: fearless, fearsome and, most importantly, not ashamed of being gay.
Jonathan doesn't want to like brooding Web, who has secrets all his own. Jonathan wants nothing more than to be "fixed" once and for all. But he's drawn to Web anyway. Web is the first person in the real world to see Jonathan completely and think he's perfect. Web is a kind of escape Jonathan has never known. For the first time in his life, he may finally feel free enough to love and accept himself as he is.
A poignant coming-of-age tale, Ziggy, Stardust and Me heralds the arrival of a stunning and important new voice in YA.
About the Author
James Brandon produced and played the central role of Joshua in the international tour of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi for a decade, and is codirector of the documentary film based on their journey, Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption. He's the cofounder of the I AM Love Campaign, an arts-based initiative bridging the faith-based and LGBTQ2+ communities, and serves on the Powwow Steering Committee for Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) in San Francisco. Brandon is a contributing writer for Huffington Post, Believe Out Loud, and Spirituality and Health Magazine. Ziggy, Stardust and Me is his first novel.You can visit James Brandon at justbejb.com
Read an Excerpt
Saturday, May 19, 1973
It starts here: The day my world begins falling, we’re sitting in Starla’s bedroom watching Soul Train. On the surface, it’s a typical Saturday morning—I mean, everything appears normal. Should’ve known better. I’m the master of that game . . .
After our usual pancake breakfast, we slink into our spots: Starla sits cross-legged on her ruby-red shag, gluing silver rhinestones to a pair of Levi’s for some design contest she’s entering. I bob up and down on her waterbed, flipping through the new Interview magazine she could hardly wait to give me.
We’re quiet, lost in our own worlds, waiting for church to start on TV—well, our version of church anyway: Soul Train. It started last year after Starla snuck me downtown to my first-ever Ziggy Stardust concert, and let’s just say, whoa: He blew my brains to smithereens. Maybe literally. He wore this skintight, leopard-print leotard and huge platform shoes so he towered over us, and his face was dusted in white powder and glittery makeup and his hair was fire-engine red, and whambamthankyouma’am I was reborn.
At one point, he shielded his eyes, scanned the audience, and sang “Starman” pointing directly at me. I swear his voice shattered my soul, and in that moment, the Holy Spirit boogied in me. Afterward, Starla said, “Jesus works His miracles in mysterious ways. He reveals Himself in everything, if you’re looking. Maybe Ziggy’s your Messiah,” and she wiped the tears from my eyes.
Since then, she’s decided music’s my religion. So every Saturday morning we hang out in her bedroom to watch Soul Train. (Finally, a church I can get behind.) And it’s about to start in T-minus ten minutes . . .
The TV sits in the corner on a rolling cart. A commercial for kids’ cereal crackles through.
Her window’s propped open and a sticky breeze left over from the three-minute downpour wafts in. Typical St. Louis spring. The wind crinkles the collage of faces plastered on her walls, making them sing and laugh and chatter up a storm of politics. Cutouts of The Jackson 5 and Jesus and Coco Chanel and “Power to the People” signs, and every female hero of hers since the Birth of Man—from Joan of Arc to Joan Baez to Angela Davis to Twiggy. Oh, and framed pictures of her secret crush, Donny Osmond. Yes, really.
Roberta Flack drips honey on the record player. And Starla . . . sings. “Killing me softlyyy . . .” She’s in her church’s choir, but well-hmm, not exactly the voice of an angel. Bless her. Starla. My best friend of forever. People think we go together; I let them. It’s safer that way . . .
And yes, Starla’s her real name. Well, sort of real name. The name she was born with was DeeDee Lucinda Jackson, but she told me one night when she was five years old she had a dream, and in that dream Jesus came to her and said, “You are from the stars and you came here to heal the world,” so she made her mom and dad change her name to Starla. I think it’s cosmically perfect, like her, and kind of fitting because her face is covered in a galaxy of freckles. And man, without her I would’ve been obliterated into Jonathan bits long ago.
“Force fields come in many forms.” That’s what Dr. Evelyn told me a few years ago after I told her Starla was like mine.
“With his song . . . ooh . . . oohh . . . oohhh . . .” she sings.
Ohhohohohoh. Bless her, Father, she knows not what she does. She is cute, though. Her hair’s slicked down under a swirly orange headscarf. Tongue’s curled to the corner of her tangerine-glossed lips. She looks like a sunset.
Back to Interview magazine. I flip through page after page of weird indecipherable conversations, some new Andy Warhol painting of Mao Tse-tung, far-out pictures of half-naked women colored in neon finger paints, and then
Three bold words punch me in the face:
“GAY IS GOOD!”
Alongside a handful of hairy muscled men dancing together. Oh.
What parallel universe are these furry dopes trippin’ in? Not in this one. Not in Missouri. Not in this broken little town of Creve Coeur. Nope, these guys would go to jail here. Or get thrown in the loony bin. Or worse. Believe me, I know—
But boy, are they dancing. And kissing! And smiling so hard it torpedoes through the page, knocking me out cold, and
I sink into the picture . . .
Music thumps. “Hey hey hey, Jonny Collins, glad you finally came out to play, play, play.” His mustache tickles my cheek. “Sorry it took so long, my main squeeze,” I say. “So many parties, so little time, you dig?” His arms engulf me. Sweat slides down his chest, gluing us together. His lips devour me, like we can’t get enough, like there’s never enough—
“Hey! You hear me?” It’s Starla.
I thrash the magazine closed; our world thunders back. “What?” “You spaced out again.”
“Yeah, you did. You okay?” Her eyes narrow, scanning me. They’re this crazy green that look like two pieces of uranium glass under a black light.
“You hear what I said?”
“Nothing. No, I mean. What?” Happens a lot. The space-out thing. Aunt Luna once told me, “Your imagination is your safe space, an escape pod to another dimension where you’re free to be.” And she said mine’s the wildest one she’s ever seen. She’s also a wackadoo hippie, so I don’t know. But she’s right, I guess, and it works, I guess, because I’m traveling through my imagination all the time. Where I’m most safe. Anything to escape this reality.
“Come down here. Next to me,” Starla says, back to her glue gun. “I wanna talk to you.”
“One sec.” Because I can’t move. Yeah. My hard-on is supernatural. Dammit. Also, it’s sizzling. Like a downed electrical line. (Everlasting side effects from Dr. Evelyn’s treatments. More on that soon.) But the two combined: definitely not good.
Starla doesn’t notice, lost in her rhinestones. I roll the magazine up and stuff it in my back pocket. I’ll stash it in my closet later so those guys are lost under my stack of National Geographics for good. That’s where they belong: tucked away. Where no one can find them.
I carefully adjust, wiggle off the bed, grab a pencil and some nearby paper, and start drawing to distract myself. Did Starla know that article was in there? Is that why she was so hell-bent on giving it to me? No. She knows how I feel about that sick stuff.
“Why do you like to draw my freckles?” she asks.
“What? Oh. Because they’re amazing.”
“I hate them. I feel like a spotted leper. Ohhohooohooohooh . . .” she sings. “Are you kidding? They’re your greatest feature. You’re like a walking, breathing nighttime sky.”
“You’re incorrigible.” She glues another rhinestone, which is now clearly part of a peace sign on the back left pocket.
I find a spot, trace a new constellation on her cheek. “See, I just found the Teeny-Weeny Dipper.”
“Oh, Jonny Jonny Jonny . . .”
“Oh, Starla Starla Starla . . .”
“What am I going to do without you?”
“Huh?” I stop drawing.
She doesn’t answer. Just drops the jeans and replaces the needle on the record. Roberta Flack drips again.
She turns to the TV; Soul Train’s started.
“What do you mean, ‘without you’?” I ask, grabbing her hand. It’s sticky from the glue.
“I’m just . . . I don’t know . . . I’m going to miss you, is all.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I say.
“No,” she says, turning to me. “I am.”
All the pictures on the wall gasp. “What? Where?”
“For the summer. To D.C. Momma got some job teaching and Poppa wants me to, you know, learn more about the movement and all that jazz. I’ve been meaning to tell you, but—”
“Oh . . .” I don’t know what else to say, so all I say is, “Oh . . .” again. “I know.”
No. This cannot be happening. I haven’t spent a summer without Starla since IT happened. I’m getting dizzy. The world tornadoes around us while we sit with our hands glued together in the middle. I close my eyes.
“You okay?” she asks, wiping my tears. Didn’t even know I was crying.
“Of course,” I say, mustering the fakest smile I can. I will not let her see. “I’m happy for you. Just gonna . . . miss you . . . you know . . .”
She lifts my chin. “Look, I know it’s crazy, but I talked it over with my parents, and Momma says you could come with us if you want—wouldn’t that just be everything?”
“Oh . . . yeah . . .”
“We’re leaving the day after school gets out. That way, we’re always together, and you’ll be so sick of me by the end of summer you’ll be dying to get back here.” We laugh. Sort of. “Anyway, it would do you good to get out of this square little town, Jonny . . . see new things . . . meet new people . . . you know . . .”
“Mm-hmm . . .” I know she’s still talking, but I can’t hear. My brain’s paralyzed. She’s right. I’ve never left the confines of Creve Coeur, but I’ve always dreamed of it: hitching a ride to California to be a rock-n-roll star. But I can’t. Not now. Not until I’m forever fixed. How am I going to do this without her?
“. . . and we can camp out at the National Mall with all those Vietnam protesters. Maybe actually do something about that stupid, good-for-nothing war, you know? Come on, I don’t want to do it alone. We’d have so much fun. Please say yes.” She smiles: a tug-of-war smile. Because she knows.
“My dad would never let me, Starla. I’m only sixteen and—”
“You’ll be seventeen in a few weeks! Poppa said he’d talk to him if you—”
“And I still have my treatments.”
“Oh . . . right . . .” she whispers.
“You know I can’t miss those.” She shrugs. “I’m going to be fine, okay? Like you said, it’s just a couple months. And anyway, you have to go so you can finally scream at Nixon like you’ve been wanting to. For both of us.” I blot her tears. “Don’t worry, okay?” I say this more to myself than her. I have one more set of treatments left, but I’ve never survived them without Starla around . . . I’ve never survived anything without Starla around . . .
“Yeah, okay,” she says.
We sit in silence. It sounds like the world’s crackling to pieces, falling down all around me, until I realize the record’s ended and the needle’s skipping.
“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go to church.” I click the player off and turn the volume up on the TV.
We watch the Soul Train line.
Bobby Womack sings some funky version of “Fly Me to the Moon.”
We hold hands the entire time.
I can’t decide which one of us is afraid to let go.