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Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates

March 15, 2011 16 comments

Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates.

Sexy is centred on Darren, a 16 year old teenager who looks too sexy for his own good. As required by clichés, CPAs are shy men with glasses and sexy men look like Brad Pitt. So Darren looks like Brad Pitt, it’s Joyce Carol Oates who writes it, not me. (I could start a controversy on the accuracy of both clichés, but that’s not the point here) 

Darren is a member of the swimming team of his high school. He lives in a remote neighbourhood of the small town of North Falls, somewhere on the Connecticut river. His father works for the city as a road employee. He comes from a lower class than his friend Molly or his friends from the swimming team.

Darren experiences the usual disarray of that age and doesn’t know who he is yet. He needs to find his place in the family and stop comparing to his older brother Eddy. He is a soft boy, loving his parents, working seriously in school although his results are average. He is sort of desperate because he thinks he can’t meet other people’s expectations. He would like to swim better, to have better grades. Girls are attracted to him, even proposition him but he’s too scared and too shy to answer. He is also aware that men are attracted to him and that makes him feel ill-at-ease.  

Right from the beginning, we feel a heavy atmosphere, Darren’s head isn’t a comfortable place to be.

One night, after a training session, he realises that his friend Kevin, who was supposed to give him a ride home, has left early. The weather is foul, it’s freezing and it starts snowing. His English teacher, Mr Tracy, offers to drive him home. Darren would rather not be alone with Mr Tracy but he doesn’t want to be impolite and it is so cold and he lives so far that he gives in. Mr Tracy is gay but still in the closet and even if he doesn’t go beyond looks and faltering, Darren understands that his teacher is in love with him. Nothing really happens as Mr Tracy immediately backs off but Darren is truly shaken.

Almost at the same time, Mr Tracy gives a bad grade to one of the swimming team member, Jimmy Kovaks, excluding him from the competition. Jimmy wants revenge and starts false rumours on Mr Tracy’s sexual habits.

An implacable machine is then on its way.  

Darren’s beauty is a handicap for him. He doesn’t have the personality people expect from such a perfect body. And what do they expect? A loud, confident boy chasing after girls. His parents worry for him, they feel he is ill-equipped for this world, too soft. His friends and his brother don’t understand. Darren made me think of Alex in Paranoid Park by Gus van Sant. (I haven’t read the book). They have the same way to cross life alone and the same inability to address the adults. Except that Darren has a conscience. Sexy also reminded me of Boy Heaven by Laura Kasischke

And then, there is the intolerance of the society towards homosexual and gays in particular, but I don’t want to develop this as it would end up revealing too much of the book.  

As far as the style is concerned, I thought this book was a slapdash job. A little polishing wouldn’t have hurt. And then the translation… Sigh… Reading Thomas Hardy in English made me question my decision to read books in their original language, reading Sexy in translation reminded me why I had made the decision in the first place. It was exactly what I needed not to change my mind. First, I was constantly trying to guess what the English was underneath the French, which was a noisy interference in my reading. Second, I was really irritated by the translation – again. Who on earth has ever heard a French child call their mother “mam”??? High-school levels have been transposed into the French school system and the translator chose not to translate cheerleader, despite the usual “pom-pom girl” term available in French (1). It was also followed by an explanation. I really doubt the definition was in the original and honestly, with all the teen movies Hollywood pours down on us, I wonder if somebody still ignores what a cheerleader is or what the names of American high-school years are.  

Despite the written-in-a-rush style and the itching aspects of the translation, I enjoyed reading Sexy. I put it down reluctantly when I had to stop reading and I was impatient to know the ending. It is a fine portrait of a teenage boy who tries to figure out what it is to be a man in a society where being a man is to love sports, hanging out with friends and enjoying girls for their body and certainly not for their conversation. A boy who doesn’t fit into that model is suspected to be gay and that makes of his life a pure hell. It is a book about conformism and the difficulty to be different and also about how our societies overreact as soon as “pedophilia” is pronounced, accusing before checking the facts. In France, we have had the sadly famous Affaire d’Outreau.

It’s worth reading, but don’t expect a perfect literary style. (unless the French translation is that bad)

PS: I was under the impression that the choice of “Darren” as a first name had a meaning. Does it convey a special image?

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(1) Yes, that’s one of those French words invented on the basis of English words and which mean nothing in English. We have lots of them.

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