Hey Joe, a first novel by Ben Neihart, follows its sixteen year old gay main character, Joe Keith, from the suburbs of New Orleans into the heart of the Creole city. The chaos that ensues over an evening away from home and the love felt and expressed by Joe combine to drive the story to its conclusion.
We begin with Joe awaiting the arrival of his friend Wyatt K. for a trip into New Orleans. The time spent waiting, develops into a sketch of JoeÕs life thus far: the death of his father to illness, the withdrawal of his mother into her work, and a failed attempt at a relationship with his teenaged neighbor, Al Theim. Despite the tragedy and pain of the opening pages, there is a melancholy bond between mother and son that seems on the brink of becoming the perfect mother/son relationship. Nineties family dysfunction prevails however and Joe, after being ditched by Wyatt K., travels by himself into New Orleans.
Joe hangs with his friends Kel, Donna, and ultimately New Orleans orphan Welk, whose beauty captivates Joe, and personal issues intertwine in the counterplot of the novel. Welk comes from an orphanage managed by the Myrtha Murphy Shaw Foundation, whose Director, Rae Schipke, has been having sexual relations with the younger boys. Rae is involved in a trial, whose jury foreman, Seth Michaels -- a former lover and employee of hers -- is slated to fix in her favor. SethÕs change of heart, which convicts Rae, causes her to seek him out in order to kill him.
Our wayward protagonist Joe has already stumbled, unknowingly, into the midst of this, having met Seth at the local gym prior to the trial. Unaware of Seth and RaeÕs involvement, Joe leaves a message on SethÕs answering machine, which Rae intercepts. The story becomes a fast paced race to the end providing some interesting and unexpected action.
Left in the dust is Joe, whose exploits over the weekend promised to be far more interesting than the story that develops. JoeÕs interactions with his mother, Al Theim, and his friends in New Orleans provide more than enough interesting material for exploration. Neihart has woven together a teen coming of age story with an action story that doesnÕt seem near as interesting as the former promised to be.
Despite this obvious flaw, the writing is good, and the language is engaging. A teen might read this story for the parts about Joe and may well disregard the counterplot which seems to only get in the way of following our main character of interest, Joe Keith.