The three stories contained in Justin David’s “Tales of the Suburbs” are a triptych portraying different stages of the coming out process for a character named Jamie. Each story shows in sensitive details the way Jamie matures, growing into himself as his gay sensibility becomes apparent to his family and friends. He must negotiate between acknowledging the community he’s been born into alongside being made to feel like an outsider. The author captures subtle shifts in familial relationships alongside evoking distinct feelings of time and place through original descriptions and crisply written dialogue. These are eccentric, funny and moving tales.
First story ‘Unicorn’ takes us into a family living room where adolescent boy Jamie spends time knitting with his grandmother. The story powerfully evokes the heyday of Boy George and the political temperature of the time period. An array of family pass through the room all distinctly created with precise dialogue that reveals their character. Still wide-eyed and innocent Jamie follows his passions entranced by the “tangerine twilight” which is a beautifully-phrased symbol of grace and ambiguity. His daydreams are filled with pop stars, particularly Boy George, and the glamorous rendezvous these celebrities might have in the city. Jamie is forthright in his interests and on the cusp of understanding that people will shame him for the unmanly things he loves. His uncle calls him “Nancy Boy” but because Jamie doesn’t have an awareness of his sexuality yet he doesn’t understand what this really means or why people create such sharp gender divides. The feisty women in the family aren’t afraid to deliver a chiding smack to the men who insult Jamie. He finds a natural camaraderie with these women whether it’s creating costumes or wondering over glossy photos of celebrities. Of course, as knowledgeable adults we readers understand Jamie’s burgeoning sexuality, but what the author does so cleverly is present Jamie’s perspective honestly as someone expressing his natural sensibility rather than self consciously trying to fit into his gender role. His grandfather begins rejecting him as he understands the boy’s flamboyance is symptomatic of what Jamie is growing up to be. This is the point where value judgements filter into a family’s consciousness overturning their personal affection for a boy they’ve raised and see him as part of a group that they scorn. No longer just Jamie but “Nancy.” This is a story of subtle power which has a tremendously moving effect.
In the story ‘Mirror Ball’ Jamie is now 16. It’s New Year’s Eve and he goes to the local annual community dance hall with his friend Paul and Paul’s family. Again the time period is indicated by the strong presence of music – in this case Whitney Houston whose rousing song ‘One Moment in Time’ is accompanied by a dance routine from Paul’s sister Debs. Jamie is more self aware. His burgeoning sexuality finds focus in his desire for his masculine friend Paul. But his friend spends the evening scouring the place for women to get off with leaving Jamie to dance with Paul’s mother Angie. When she drunken makes a pass at him and Jamie rejects her she dismisses him with the insult “bender.” Jamie has grown impatient with small town life and aches to escape. But this time he’s found an ally in the form of talented dancer Debs who wants to get away just as badly as he does. While dancing Jamie observes that “Tiny dots of mirror-light fly across nicotine stained wallpaper.” His recognition for all that shines in the midst of this mediocre dance hall gives promise for a life bigger and more fulfilling than what he can find returning year after year to this provincial setting. This is the portrait of a person who has realized he doesn’t belong in the place he’s been born and needs to venture out to discover his true “family.”
Jamie has reached a more mature independent state in the story 'Triffle.' This is the era of the Spice Girls. He returns home from Christmas where his parents show their acceptance of his relationship with a man by giving them a joint Christmas card. When Nan arrives with her characteristic green eye shadow the subject of Jamie's joint habitation with another man is a delicate one. Although the boy and his grandmother share a strong bond making an open acknowledgement of the boy's sexuality is a final hurdle that's difficult to leap over. However, on this occasion it's Jame's turn to be shocked by a hidden aspect of his parents' sexuality when he makes an accidental discovery by looking in their closet and also frank talk between his grandparents about their sexual life at the dinner table. The deep divide Jamie felt yawning between him and his family gradually closes as he finds himself bound to them in their eccentricities. The story illustrates the way we continue to discover surprising and multiple layers to our families as we mature.