|A Review byRebecca James
|The Year of Ice (2002) by Brian Malloy St. Martin's Press, 262 pages, $22.95
I stood in the hallway last week, waiting for my summer-seeking charges to ooze into my classroom, and I listened as they discussed school gossip and news in the free manner only found outside the rigors of English class. The subject of their conversation, however, was one that stuck with me. Recently, a new student had joined our class, only to have disappeared a few weeks later, about three days before the conversation I was now privy to. Short, slight in build, with meticulously groomed eyebrows, shaved in the style popular with our more vivacious Hispanic girls, this boy immediately was noticed.
Our team of teachers, at our guidance counselor's suggestions, carefully watched for signs that he might be given trouble because of his looks and perceived sexual orientation. He seemed to gain the friendship of a group of girls right away, so we relaxed a little. However, we hadn't seen him in a few days and I had been wondering what had happened until the counselor called that morning and said he was moving back to live with his other parent and would not be returning. After hearing the students speculate on his whereabouts, I offered this piece of news to them and was surprised by their reaction.
"I knew it! Those stupid people talkin' about him, causin' trouble!" One girl's fury was seconded by others in the crowd. I pressed her a little for an explanation. "Oh, miss," she signed, apparently pitying my apparent stupidity, "he's out, you know, gay, and some stupid people were talkin' junk about him."
"Yeah, I heard that too, and I told them that I don't care if he's gay or not." The crowd, which had grown quite large by that point, seemed to be in agreement. I smiled, ushered them inside while saying, "That's a great view to have; I'm glad you told him how you felt."
It was somewhat heartening to know that these students were so nonchalant about his sexuality, and also that the student himself wasn't forced to hide it (he ended up moving for reasons unrelated to school). It served as a harsh contrast to the trials of the main character in Brian Malloy's young adult novel, The Year of the Ice.
Kevin describes himself as an "alpha" member of his 1970s high school crowd. Tough but good-looking, he attracts the attention of all the hottest girls in school. His inner monologues, however, show a different side to him. Each social conversation is carefully scripted, somewhat rehearsed, and absolutely detached from his true feelings. Kevin is gay. There is no deliberation for this main character; he does not struggle with the "am I or am I not?" questions. Instead, he goes through his daily life trying to hide his typical teenage hormonal impulses (typical with one exception, of course) from his friends.
At the same time, Kevin is also struggling with family issues. His mother died a year or so before the story begins, her death the result of a terrible accident on an icy Minnesota bridge. Since then, Kevin and his dad have lived alone on pizza and take-out, a quiet coexistence of mutual pain. Suddenly, however, Kevin's aunt blurts out what she believes is the truth, that her sister committed suicide by driving off the bridge, driven to such extremes by her unfaithful husband who was about to leave her for his mistress. Kevin, whose thoughts have already been preoccupied with missing his mother, finds his world spinning out of control. His frustration and fear about hiding his sexuality and dreams of marrying the object of his affection, an oblivious classmate, coupled with the pressure of confronting his father explode into a verbally and often physically vicious cycle of violence during his senior year of high school.
As Kevin slowly collects evidence of others like him ("So there's me, Fey Heyes, the Iranian T.A., this twelve-year-old kid, and maybe, if I'm lucky, Jack."), he begins to look outside his small town with hopes of acceptance. It is clear by the story's ending that Kevin will seek a life outside the world of knocked-up girlfriends, keggers, and proms that his friends are swept away with. A nervous and unsuccessful trip to the Gay 90s (a club in Minneapolis still around today with a drag show that has a huge straight audience) leaves Kevin depressed and disappointed in himself initially, but it's clear to the reader that he will eventually go back and try again. He also finds hope and his first male kiss from a straight but not uptight grad student at the local college, a scene that is as uncomfortable to witness as it is moving.
The icy theme permeates the entire novel. The image of ice haunts his memory of his mother, both his mistaken perception of the cause of her frosty nightly vigils on the front porch and her deadly accident. He, as a character, has an icy outer persona that drives girls crazy, one that hides the true self underneath. Finally, Mr. Heyes, a.k.a. Fey Heyes, his "faggy" English teacher has a recurring and thoughtful question he likes to pepper Kevin with based on the Robert Frost poem, "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening." Although directed at teens, The Year of Ice is a captivating flashback for adult readers as well.
Rebecca James teaches high school English in Allentown, Pennsylvania and spends her summers in Rehoboth Beach.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 6 June 3, 2005