Joe's Reviews > The World of Normal Boys

The World of Normal Boys by K.M. Soehnlein
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's review
Dec 07, 2007

really liked it
Read in May, 2009

The World of Normal Boys really took me by surprise. It's been a long time since I've read a novel in which I really cared about the main character and couldn't wait to find out what would happen next. It starts off promising and then BAM! about 60 pages in an unexpected event occurs which causes the novel to do a 180, veering off onto a different trajectory. At first I didn't know whether or not I was going to like the direction it took but by the time I reach page 100 or so, the novel hits its stride and becomes this heartbreaking coming of age tale. It's a bit reminiscent of David Mitchell's Black Swan Green, except it takes place in the US and the protagonist is gay.

The story goes something like this:

It's Fall 1978 in Greenlawn, New Jersey. The last days of summer are winding down and Robin MacKenzie is about to begin his freshman year of high school but he doesn't have any classes with his best friend and next door neighbor Victoria. Robin is bummed out about that and the fact that he and Victoria are growing apart.

Robin has a quiet younger sister named Ruby; a bratty younger brother named Jackson who torments him; an indifferent father who prefers Jackson over him; a glamorous, cultured alcoholic mother trapped in the confines of suburbia; a prick of a cousin named Larry who joins Jackson in tormenting him; and an opinionated and prick of an uncle named Stan.

Robin also begins to realize he's gay and has taken to watching and fantastizing about Victoria's older, hunky, jock of a brother Todd Spicer. Todd is Robin's biggest tormentor but it doesn't stop Robin from having a crush on him. One day Robin and Victoria talk Todd into taking them to the drive-in theater to see the R-rated version of Saturday Night Fever before the PG version replaces it. What happens at the drive-in theater and later that evening when Robin returns home is the catalyst for the rest of the novel.

As a result of the events of that evening, Robin finds himself befriending burnout Scott Schatz who has no friends, smokes pot, and suffers physical abuse at the hands of his loutish father. As their friendship "develops", Robin finds himself coping with his sexuality, his parent's growing indifference towards him and each other, Todd Spicer's sudden odd behavior, Ruby's sudden interest in religion, and his increasing feelings of guilt and betrayal regarding the events of that fateful evening. To give away anymore would spoil the reading experience.

K.M. Soehnlein handles the subject matter with frankness and sensitivity. He expertly captures the feelings of longing, confusion, sadness, and desperation many gay adolescent boys experience in their teenage years. At times, it was eerie how Robin's feelings mirrored mine when I was his age.

The World of Normal Boys is a heartbreaking, beautifully written, and impressive debut novel that will stay with you for days later. For those who are curious: yes, adolescent boys do masturbate as much as Robin does. Heck, we're at our sexual peak during this age.

This was a hidden gem of novel that has sat on my book shelf for a few years. What a surprise. Two items I have heard about the novel that slightly distresses me: 1) This is being made into a movie. 2) Soehnlein is working on a sequel.

I can only hope one or both of these items are worth the effort. If nothing else, reading The World of Normal Boys is.


SPOILERS ARE CONTAINED FROM THIS POINT ON. DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU'VE READ THE NOVEL OR JUST DON'T CARE.
























LAST CHANCE TO TURN BACK. SPOILERS BELOW.









There were three small beefs I had about the novel. I was able to forgive these small faults once I fully immersed myself into Robin's world because the book is that good. However, they still nagged at the back of my mind while I was reading.

1)Why didn't the parents ask what happened at the playground? I'm hard pressed to believe that not once not a single adult bothered to ask any of the kids exactly what happened.

2)Robin's parents did not seem to take into account that Robin was acting out as a direct result of the tragedy. They were very selfish and self centered characters. I couldn't believe that not once did anyone think that maybe Robin was grieving too in the only way he knew how. Or maybe Robin was behaving the way he did because his parents were not being kind or considerate of his feelings or his sister Ruby's.

3)It was bit too coincidental for me that both Scott and Todd were gay or a least willing to experiment. Scott was more believable but Todd's character arc was a bit far fetched for me. One or the other I could buy, but both? And why wouldn't Todd have tried something sooner? They lived next door to each other for 13 years or so.

Just my thoughts.
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