“Ever since I first heard that Lionel Richie and Diana Ross song, `Endless Love,’ all I’ve wanted is to find The One. Someone to love. Who will love me back.”
September, 1982. John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane” is on endless radio rotation, and Dallas and Dynasty rule the ratings. Jack Paterno is a straight-A student living in the Detroit suburb of Hazel Park, with his own Atari 5200, a Beta VCR, and everything a seventh-grader could ask for. The only thing he has in common with foul-mouthed Brad Dayton, who lives on the gritty south side near 8 Mile, is that both are in Varsity Band. Or maybe that’s not the only thing. Because Jack is discovering that while hanging around with girls in elementary school was perfectly acceptable, having lots of girl friends (as opposed to girlfriends) now is getting him and Brad labeled as Band Fags. And Jack is no fag. Is he?
As Jack and Brad make their way through junior high and then through Hazel Park High School, their friendship grows deeper and more complicated. From stealing furtive glances at Playgirl to discussing which celebrities might be like that, from navigating school cliques to dealing with crushes on girls and guys alike, Jack is trying to figure out who and what he is. He wants to find real, endless love, but he also wants to be popular and “normal.” But, as Brad points out, this is real life–not a John Hughes movie. And sooner or later, Jack will have to choose.
Filled with biting wit and pitch-perfect observations, Band Fags is an exhilarating novel about lust and love, about the friendships that define and sometimes confine us, and about coming of age and coming to terms with the end of innocence and the beginning of something terrifying, thrilling, and completely unpredictable.
When I first began reading this book, I honestly was not too impressed. Actually, I was frustrated and annoyed by the author’s writing style. For the first half of the book every paragraph was riddled with incomplete sentences. He also seemed to ignore literaly every grammatical rule in the book. I read his biography and discovered he has a Master’s degree in dramatic writing. Go figure. Well, I think it was the fact that I related so well to the pop culture from the 80′s and also possibly because I live in Michigan very close to where the story is set, that I forced myself to continue reading.
Interestingly, the author’s writing style seemed to mature along with the central character. The conclusion I’ve drawn was that his poor grammar was a deliberate attempt to sound authentic and conversational. I’m not sure it worked for me, but setting that aside, I have to admit that I’ve been deeply moved by this touching story.
Jack Paterno is a seventh-grade literary geek who is also muscially inclined. He’s a member of his school’s band, and the close friendships he develops during his junior high and high school years all center around his involvement in band. He and his fellow band members are disparagingly referred to as “band fags”.
As Jack approaches and eventually dives right into puberty, a realization starts to dawn upon him. He begins questioning his identity, and these questions are quite alarming to him. He recalls in vivid detail the way he always played girl-type games with his female friends and cousins when he was young. He remembers crushes he’s had on other boys. He thinks it might be weird that he’s obsessed with soap operas and sappy romantic movies. Worst of all though, he fears that the fact he finds other guys attractive might make him “that way”. He’s afraid he might be a real fag, not just a band fag.
Jack’s best friend is a boy named Brad, and the two are the same age. Brad is similar to Jack in that he’s also in band, and he’s also “that way”. The story is definitely a coming-out and coming-of-age-story, but more significantly it is a story about this enduring friendship. It is about fear, betrayal, passion, and forgiveness. It is about enduring love. The relationship that these two central characters develop is powerful and deeply moving.
During part of the book I found myself not liking Jack too much. In fact, I sort of wanted to slam it closed and toss it in the trash. I found him to be ego-centric and shallow. I was extremely offended by some of the elitist remarks he made, for example stating that his parents were simple people because they worked in a supermarket. When he abandoned his friends in an attempt to gain popularity from the “in” crowd, I wanted to smack him.
I’m not sure if the book is at all auto-biographical, but if so, I’m impressed with the author’s willingness to expose himself this way. Ultimately, my opinion changed about the protagonist, and I actually cried near the end.
Perhaps the story contained more details than it needed. Maybe the narrator tended to drone on a bit when he could have been advancing the story. Sometimes he seemed to get distracted and began talking about off-topic subjects which caused some confusion. In spite of this, though, I really enjoyed the narration. I sort of felt as if that is exactly the way a real-life Jack Paterno would talk if he were sitting in my living room carrying on a conversation with me. I also loved the way his detailed descriptions allowed me to paint clear mental pictures of the setting and the characters.
I think that although the character Jack Paterno was shallow for much of the story, the book itself was amazingly deep, and I’m certain it’s going to stick with me for a long time. It really makes me want to pick up the phone and call all the people I’ve known throughout my life just to remind them how much I love them.
Thanks Frank Polito for a great read. Thanks for sharing your talent. Thanks for being an out and proud Band Fag! If I were a girl, I’d think you’re totally hot!!
Review by Jeff