One Man Guy - Michael Barakiva

One Man Guy is Michael Barakiva's first novel, and it's a daring debut! It's not too often that authors are willing to engage with multiple layers of marginality, in this case sexuality and race. It seems like common sense that various aspects of humanity interact on a daily basis in real life, but often within lit for young readers, certain aspects are sacrificed in order to engage with another (hence all the white gay boys in YA!) Moving on....

Barakiva's novel opens on Alek and his family out for dinner. His mother and father spend almost the entirety of the first ten pages complaining about the service, the type of water available, and the types of food. It's a humorous way to open, and Barakiva pulls it off well. Once the food eventually gets ordered, Alek finds out that his parents have decided to send him to summer school while they go on vacation with his older brother, Nik. Before the summer has a chance to completely fall apart, though, he runs into Ethan, a skater boy that he's had his eye on for some time, and the two develop a very close relationship.

While I enjoyed the majority of the story, and the degree of characterization of Alek and Ethan, I did feel that many of the secondary characters and much of the background story were based on very stereotypical language. The story itself is very sweet, and I found myself rooting for Alek and Ethan as they develop their relationship and eventually find themselves confronted with the realization that, while they feel grown up, parents are still a huge part of their lives.

There are humorous moments, such as the opening chapter, as I said above, and also in terms of Alek's over-protective Armenian parents, who play a very important role in Alek's development and his life decisions. At one point, his mother notes that New York "is very dangerous, especially for someone young, Maybe when you're a senior in high school, and we've had time to explore it together, we'll let you go in. During the day. To a few neighborhoods we agree on beforehand. With some friends. And a chaperone. And maybe a police escort." Like so many parents, Alek's folks just don't quite know when to quit when it comes to protecting the innocence of their younger child, even though he's almost fourteen.

Racial background and identity play a very large part within the novel, driving many of Alek's worries, frustrations, and daily anxieties as he moves out into the world of dating and rebellion against the rules. In the earlier part of the book, this works out relatively smoothly, but as the book progresses, the mentions of Armenian and Turkish history begin to feel forced in order to create unnecessary additional tensions within the overall plot. It is an intriguing examination, but in the end, his parents' feelings about him and Ethan seem almost anticlimactic (not giving it away!)

There was also one moment that made me cringe, and part of me hopes it is removed from the final book, and it has to do with writing in dialect. It's possible to write dialect, but it has to be done very well in order to keep from crossing into the realm of caricature, and in this case, that's exactly what happens:
Marco pulled Ethan and Alek aside. "I-ah finish with my-ah current client in five-ah minutes. There's a wait list, but any friend-ah Ethan's a friend-ah mine.
In the end, the novel is an interesting first glance at the intersections of sexuality and racial difference for Alek, and his relationship with Ethan is a compelling part of the text. I always feel bad writing a review that is anything but glowing with praise, and when it comes to queer YA, there is so little out there that I don't want to be disparaging of the work that is being published. I do worry that the style, which feels somewhat forced and didactic at times, will turn off readers who simply want to enter into the plot without being dragged into real-world sociopolitical ideology.

All in all, a good first offering from Michael Barakiva. I hope to see more from him in the future.

Recommended with reservations

(Note: This review is from an Advanced Reading Copy - Out May 2014)

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