|A Review By Rebecca James|
|The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy by Robert Leleux
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, that great representative of the American Literature canon, is especially interesting to teach adolescents. Juniors in high school can completely appreciate the title character's intentions. Jay Gatsby is satisfied with nothing less than creating and embodying what he considers to be the perfect man. He defines this ideal creature according to symbols of wealth and social power. Nick, the narrator, claims he appeared from nowhere and took over an expansive and expensive mansion in Long Island. The problem with living a life of fiction, as any teenager knows, is that there are side effects to eradicating the real youone of which is that facades are often transparent to everyone but you. In other words, the fact that you are always "on stage" is sometimes obvious to everyone.
Robert Leleux grew up in a Gatsby home, only it was his mother who followed Gatsby's path. She was a character in her own right, a woman so dedicated to perfection that she caused herself to go bald from bleaching her own scalp. Interestingly enough, the situation didn't faze her; she was so used to enhancing her look with makeup, wigs, and falsies. A woman whose first attempt at creating wealth and gaining power failed when her in-law-funded extravagance ended when her penniless-on-paper husband left her, "Mother" picked herself up and embarked on a multi-faceted plan to redirect her future. Robert, like it or not, was along for the ride.
"Despite the fact that Pam was ugly, knowing that Daddy had left her for another woman catapulted Mother into a frenzy of beauty treatments, aerobic exercise, and various self-improvement measures. She quickly became convinced that her only hope of regaining financial comfort depended upon snaring a rich man before our new poverty began to appear too desperate than obvious. Even though Mother seemed a little berserk, I was grateful for her burst of new energy. It was far preferable to the way she'd moped around the house after seeing Pam [...] After she saw Pam's poochy stomach, Mother had abandoned herself to Breakfast at Tiffany's. She spent her days in her big canopy bed, wearing a dirty peignoir, watching her movie, and drinking vodka out of Evian bottles."
Robert, accustomed to cucumber sandwiches, regular Neiman's grooming, and Bette Davis impersonations, is a bit shocked by his mother's behavior but willing to follow along if it means keeping him in his usual luxuries. Slowly, though, Robert realizes that Mother's plan to pass as a girl in her thirties (instead of her true late 40s) is somewhat foiled by his teenage presence. When she forces him to drive her on a wild two-hour ride to save her bleeding "thingy" and then abandons him in a podiatrist's office while she undergoes major plastic surgery funded by pawned jewelry, he laments his own naivet: "'I'm working very hard,' I said, 'to decide whether or not you're having a nervous breakdown. Or if you've always been crazy, and I'm just now waking up to it.'"
Leleux documents his crazy path in the wake of his mother's adventures in his new memoir, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy. While it's difficult to imagine someone living like this as recently as the 1990s, Leleux rightfully earns his place by some of our favorite wacky families: David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, and others. Leleux is young for a memoir, only about thirty, but his voyage into theatre provided him with his own escape that was worth juxtaposing with Mother's journey. Along the way, Leleux falls in love and finds himself, even as she flounders.
He describes Mother as the type of person who "spoke in quotable phrases, as though she intended her words to be embroidered." Leleux inherited her gift, albeit in a more positive way. His memoir is as funny as Sedaris and Burroughs, and, like theirs, it's just as much due to his writing style as it is the events of their lives. Even his coming out process was amusing because he recognized the absurdity of Mother making it about her, rather than about him:
"'And nothing about this catches you unawares?' I asked. Because, honestly, I found Mother's response a tad bit lackluster.
'Unawares, Robert?' she said. 'Look at me.' Mother's real hair floated like she was underwater. The way her eyeliner was smeared looked like she'd seen musket fire. 'How could you have been my child and not be gay? Women like me always have gay children. Cher, Lana Turner, Queen Elizabeth. My God, look at Queen Elizabeth.'"
As Robert progresses through the memoir, the distance he places between himself and his mother eventually allows him to appreciate her Gatsby-like quality, just like the unbiased Nick Carraway, finding his own backbone in the process. Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, with Leleux's talent for writing and slightly twisted (in a good way) perspective, holds its weight in the narrow genre of gay-related books that can appeal to a wide range of people.
Rebecca James divides her time between Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she teaches and is a grad student, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where she reads books simply for pleasure. She may be reached with comments and suggestions at email@example.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 02 March 07, 2008