“The Trouble with Billy” by Jeffrey Ricker from Speaking Out: LGBTQ Youth Stand Up (Bold Strokes Books, 2011).
I try not to make the same mistakes twice; there’s just too much to do and too little time as it is. Why not make new ones? The last anthology I reviewed contained a story by Jeffrey Ricker that I forgot/didn’t realize was his until I re-read it. That matters because I’ve been reading his second novel, The Unwanted, which released a little over a month ago. I should have been able to comment on it when I reviewed that story, but I couldn’t.
I had not read this anthology previously, as I had with all the others thus far, so this time I looked ahead. Sure enough, there’s not only a Jeffrey Ricker story in this one, there’s a story that can only be an early draft of the novel’s opening, yet was published in 2011. That’s interesting. Also interesting – this is written in third person, whereas the novel is written in first person. No, the really interesting thing is that mid-way through the story here the viewpoint character switches. The novel is all from Jamie’s point of view. This starts out the same, but a little ways in we’re suddenly in Billy’s head, getting his take on things. I really, really liked that, having now finished the book. (See? I told you. I try not to make the same mistake twice if I can possibly help it.)
Billy is the bully who makes Jamie’s life hell, until he doesn’t, and he turns out to be—in my opinion—one of the most interesting characters and the most sympathetic one in the book. In a lot of ways he has it much harder than Jamie. He has more at stake. He bullies people for a reason – he needs to distance himself from everything that threatens him, yet he also has a need to be seen by the person who is the most dangerous to him. Billy will take any interaction with Jamie that he can get, even the negative variety. Maybe even preferably negative. It’s the funhouse mirror version of having your cake and eating it, too. Which is very sad, and I’m a sucker for the underdog.
I’m also a sucker for the mechanics of storytelling, so reading the novel and then reading this was like getting a glimpse behind the curtain, getting to see the motor works, as it were. More than anything this piece feels like the author working out the character relationships for himself, though judging it strictly it on its own merits I still think it has value. I’m all for giving a person who has been bullied or made to feel like an outcast for being gay, lesbian or transgendered a glimpse into what could be motivating their detractors (don’t just think teenagers and school bullies, here, think the folks those bullies often grow up to be – the head of a rabidly anti-gay religious group or “ex-gay” organization, for instance, or–god help us all—-a head of state). I’m all for showing the bully what motivates him (or her), too, and hopefully de-escalating the conflict.
Finally, a part of the story here is told from the point of view of Jamie’s kick-ass best friend Sarah, and her presence reminds me that this piece of the puzzle contains none of the elements that have earned the novel much of the attention it’s gotten. There are no Amazons in these pages, no flying horses, no prophecies to be fulfilled. That’s okay. While I enjoyed those elements, I actually didn’t need them. It’s Billy and Jamie’s complicated relationship that’s the lynchpin of this tale. At novel’s end I’d had nothing but Jamie’s perspective. What I really wanted was to know more about Billy. So this? Perfect.