If you picked up a copy of Two Boys Kissing in an airport bookshop, you’d probably think it was a teen melodrama. I know this because when I bought it, I thought it might be that, or at least in the ballpark of YA romance. I’ve also unsuccessfully tried to convince two friends to read it, and they’ve both taken one look at the cover and flat-out refused – not because it isn’t a lovely nice cover, but because it suggests a very different story than Levithan has written. I get that, I really do. The person who coined the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” was clearly talking about people and not actual books because every person I’ve ever met does just that. I do it all the time. (I also judge books by the type of font used, the kerning, the number of words on a page, the feel of the paper used…)
If you are a teenager now, it is unlikely you knew us well. We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, the author of that book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation. You know some of our songs.
We do not want to haunt you too somberly. We don’t want our legacy to be gravitas. You wouldn’t want to live your life like that, and you won’t want to be remembered like that, either. Your mistake would be to find commonality in our dying. The living part mattered more.
We taught you how to dance. (p 3)
That’s not to say this isn’t a novel about two boys kissing. It is. It is about two boys, exes, who decide to try to break the Guinness Book of World Record for longest kiss (based on a true event from September 18, 2010, when two college students, Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello kissed for thirty-two hours, thirty minutes, and forty-seven seconds). The story is told to us by ghosts, gay men who died during the height of the AIDs epidemic now watching over one small town and lives of seven gay teenage boys over the course of a single, important weekend. Levithan balances each element of the story with candid grace. He leans in to both the funny and frightening aspects of love and youth and being a little outside the circle.
We wish we could show you the world as it sleeps. Then you’d never have any doubt about how similar, how trusting, how astounding and vulnerable we all are. (p 20)
The book reads like a love letter, not just to or for gay boys, but to youth. To the exploration and mistakes we make when we’re unformed, blind, stupid, happy, on the edge of death, exploding with life. Each of the boys in this book has his own story, his own tiny piece carved out. Each of those pieces feels familiar, maybe because there’s something about going through adolescence in the United States that brings the most diverse people together with the recognition of how close to the heart seemingly far flung experiences land us. How similar , how trusting, how astounding and vulnerable…
We wish we could have been there for you. We didn’t have many role models of our own – we latched on to the foolish love of Oscar Wilde and the well-versed longing of Walt Whitman because nobody else was there to show us an untortured path. We were going to be your role models. We were going to give you art and music and confidence and shelter and a much better world. Those who survived lived to do this. But we haven’t been there for you. We’ve been here. Watching as you become the role models. (p 194)
For more about David Levithan, head here.