By Jeff Walsh
With his first novel, Geography Club, Brent Hartinger captures the angst and loneliness of feeling that you're the only gay person in the world. How it is difficult to imagine that, in the segregated high school social scene, your "different" sexuality is hidden under the surface and can unite you with people you otherwise wouldn't know, talk to, or considering hanging out with.
In the novel, Russel does his best to avoid anything that might tip people off that he's gay. He plays along with the jokes in the locker room, dates girls, whatever it takes. Online one night, Russel finds a chat room for his small town in Idaho on a gay website. He starts chatting with the person known only as GayTeen in the room. They are the same age. They are in the same grade. And.. they go to the same school?! Russel is a perfect blend of fear and excitement, unable to consider anyone else in his school, his grade even, could also be gay, while also fearing revealing his own identity. Neither will reveal their real name first, fearing the other person won't do the same. Instead, they decide to go meet in person and, that night, they come face to face.
Once the two characters meet, Russel's desire to talk about everything (meeting this guy, his being gay, etc.) leads him to come out to friends, who eventually form their own secret society within the high school. A group of them decide to meet twice a week for "Geography Club," picked because it sounds so boring no one else would ever show up to attend. And safer than a GSA, because no one has to come out as gay to talk about geography.
With a book like this, the devil is really in the details. Seeing how the different relationships begin, change, break, and repair is most of the fun, which is why this review won't really delve too far into the characters because, at the beginning of the book, we only know that Russel is gay, so it's better to avoid making this one of those movie trailers that show all of the plot points, leaving you to just see the connective tissue in-between, and knowing what comes next.
The book really captures the exuberance that you feel when you first start talking to others about your sexuality, after feeling like you're the only one, and thinking no one else in your life could possibly be gay. It details how coming out opens you up as a person, not having to second-guess yourself or keep people at bay for fear of saying too much. It also explores that some friendships deepen and others get tested as a result, why we change who we are to be closer to the person to whom we're attracted and how, ultimately, we need to learn to be ourselves.
That said, it isn't some preachy After School Special (hmm, 70s reference), err, or a "Very Special Episode of Blossom"? (I think that only gets me up to the early 90s). Well, whatever phrase you kids have these days for something that is well meaning, but has a clear objective that somehow robs it of being interesting or worth your time? It's definitely not that.
In the book, Hartinger keeps up a playful pace throughout, and manages to let Russel tell his story to the reader, with asides and all, without it even becoming cutesy. We get to see him date girls against his better judgment, have to pretend to not be close in public with the guy he gets to kiss when they're alone, and we watch him learn to sort out his priorities along the lines of friendship, intimacy, and standing up for what's right.
There's definitely a reason this book has already spawned two sequels (so far). I highly recommend you find out why for yourself.