John Goode’s Tales From Foster High #1-3 is a compilation of the first novella that kicked-off this well written young adult series Maybe With A Chance of Certainty and the two books that followed: The End of The Beginning and Raise Your Glass. I initially read and reviewed Maybe With A Chance of Certainty as a single title and immediately fell in love with Mr. Goode’s writing and in particular his characterisation. While this is a review of the compilation as a whole, it also incorporates some of my thoughts from the review of the initial novella.
Kyle Stilleno is seventeen, highly intelligent and a loner from, as he puts it, “Nowhere, Texas.” Gay and from an abusive home he spends most of his days trying to remain invisible by stealthily navigating the halls of his high school from class-to-class, eating lunch alone, and immediately running home after school in the hopes that no one will get close enough to discover the realities of his life.
“By the time I started high school, I had constructed a virtual igloo of emotional distance between me and everyone else. I projected a coldness that bordered on snobbery. I was the guy everyone knew of but no one could recall speaking to personally. I imagined myself an urban legend of Foster High School, like the Sasquatch or a chupacabra. Everyone had a friend who had seen me talking to someone, but no one had ever talked to me directly. I was a ghost wandering the halls, head down, backpack over one shoulder, eyes focused on where my next step would take me and nothing more. In a social environment where being cool and liked were currency, I was a monk who had taken a vow of poverty which then necessitated a vow of celibacy. I sidestepped conversations, ate lunch by myself, and practically ran home after school.
I didn’t know it, but I was broken in a way that wasn’t readily evident to those around me.”
Brad Greymark is the star of Foster High’s baseball team and a member of the in-crowd at school. A good-looking jock, with plenty of friends and a girlfriend, by all appearances Brad has the perfect life. But the reality is that Brad’s outward life is a lie – he’s deeply closeted and also hails from an abusive home.
“…I love baseball because being out there is the only place in the universe where I can be myself.
I wasn’t Nathan and Susan’s only boy. I wasn’t a high school student who was unable to maintain a 2.75 without help. And I wasn’t one of the nameless kids that were born, bred, and died of boredom in Foster every year. Out there on the diamond, I wasn’t a disappointment; I wasn’t too dumb, and for a couple of hours a day I wasn’t stuck in Foster. From the moment I walked onto the field to the second I stumbled back into the locker room, I was in a place that, if anyone asked me, I would have said was the closest to heaven that I am ever going to see. It was the entirety of my life standing on that grass chasing after fly balls. I know it sounds corny, but it really was the only bright point of an otherwise shitty life.”
When Brad asks Kyle to tutor him in history, Kyle thinks that maybe his life has taken a turn for the better and the not so lonely. He and Brad bond almost immediately and their relationship quickly becomes much more than acquaintance or friendship. Kyle tries to resist falling for Brad to no avail. Brad wants Kyle, but also wants to remain in the closet and keep up the façade of his outward life. Kyle quickly realises that what he’s suspected all along, that the promise of fairy-tale love is a lie when you’re gay and falling for one of the most popular boys in school. Brad quickly realises that popularity is fleeting when the big man on campus turns out to be gay. Both Kyle and Brad try to navigate their relationship while simultaneously dealing with the fallout from their coming out amidst the scrutiny of their peers, teachers and school administrators and within the context of their respective families.
The compilation is divided into three parts coinciding with each of the novellas and written in the first person. Kyle narrates the first part of the story and Brad the second. The third part alternates perspectives between Kyle and Brad. The first person narrative ascribes an extremely intimate voice to both characters. This enables the reader to form an emotional bond with each of the characters, to see the world through their eyes and experience it as they do. This level of intimacy is established from the very first sentence and continues throughout the story.
Kyle’s inner dialogue is forthright and characterised by a cynical maturity, but given the circumstances of his life it is a sincere depiction of this character. He’s basically taken care of himself all of his life, and despite his youth I imagine that if we were to look into Kyle’s eyes we would see someone much older than his seventeen years. Kyle’s quest to remain detached from everything and everyone is a mechanism that he’s used his entire life as a means of self-preservation. But when it comes to Brad he lets down his guard, which leaves him wide open for disappointment and hurt because of Brad’s actions and Kyle realises that not even Brad can assure him of the certainty he seeks when it comes to his heart.
The reader initially gets to know Brad through Kyle’s eyes and through some very well written dialogue between the two characters. In this, Kyle’s perspective is quite insightful as he quickly realises that despite appearances, Brad’s life is no easier than his own and that Brad is equally broken. At first, Brad is indecisive when it comes to Kyle. While he wants to be with Kyle he also fears losing everything should he come out to his family and friends and publicly admit his feelings for Kyle. In his mind, he has a lot farther to fall and a lot more to lose than Kyle. This fear often manifests itself in Brad saying one thing and doing another, which inevitable hurts Kyle. But Brad does step up to the plate, not only to defend and protect Kyle but to also admit who and what he is and how he feels about Kyle.
The second part of the story is narrated exclusively from Brad’s perspective and through his voice we learn that Brad has essentially coasted his entire life, taking advantage of his good looks, athletic accomplishments and his popularity, he never really had to try. In this part of the story Brad vacillates back and forth between terror at the reaction of his friends and family of his coming out, and his need to be himself and to be with Kyle. To Brad’s surprise he receives support from an unlikely source that helps him to face the fall-out.
The third part of the story begins with Kyle and Brad’s first day back at school after their coming out. Both experience leers, bullying and violence from their fellow students and a mixture of apathy and disdain from teachers and school administrators as many turn a blind eye to what Kyle and Brad are going through. Mr. Goode captures the stark realities of ignorance and homophobia among peers, teachers and school administrators alike and the resulting bullying and violence that LGBTQ youth face, especially in the more conservative regions of the United States, in this case Foster, Texas. Throughout all of this, Kyle and Brad realise that they can only rely on each other for support.
What resonates most with Mr. Goode’s writing is the deference and care with which he has written these characters and their plight. Mr. Goode does not manufacture contrived teenage angst as a plot lever. What he does do through his honest and intelligent portrayal of Kyle and Brad is to capture and validate the feelings of these two young men, their pain, courage, mistakes, hopes and dreams. One of the aspects of this story that I enjoyed most is the journey and evolution of each protagonist in the face of adversity. When we first meet Kyle his existence is marked by distance and avoidance, but as the story progresses Kyle’s emotional maturity, strength and courage are revealed to the reader, and in many ways he becomes fearless. For Brad, there is much reflection and self-growth as he admits to himself that he’s used people in the past and in many respects was no different than those that are now bullying both he and Kyle.
There are several defining moments for both characters throughout the story. There is one scene that vividly stands out for me in respect of Kyle’s growth. It takes place in the vice-principal’s office following his altercation with a school bully and it captures Kyle’s sense of isolation and his feelings on the failure of the adults in his life. Although a small triumph for Kyle, it was also empowering for the character to finally tell an adult exactly how he feels. The scene that stands out most for me in respect of Brad involves his run in with a group of school geeks who initiate him to his first game of Dungeons and Dragons. It is quite a humorous scene but at the same time one in which Brad realises that he was in fact a bully.
Tales From Foster High made the list of my Best in LGBTQ Literature for 2012. It is a well written coming of age story as told through the rich, deeply insightful and often humorous narrative of the protagonists, and with characters that are written with emotional integrity, respect and sensitivity. While the story is written for the fourteen to eighteen year age range, it has cross-generational appeal and I wholeheartedly recommend it to readers of all ages. I very much look forward to reading the fourth instalment in the series, entitled, End of The Innocence.
Tales From Foster High #1-3 by John Goode is available in ebook format at All Romance eBooks, Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The three novellas are also available as single titles from Dreamspinner Press, All Romance eBooks and Amazon.
Music: Don’t You (Forget About Me) – Simple Minds (The Breakfast Club: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1985); Subdivisions – Rush (Signals, 1982)