Swimming to Chicago – David-Matthew Barnes (Bold Strokes Books)

Buy it now direct from Bold Strokes Books

I love books that can destroy their own labels—those
marketing categories that limit and define the limitless and indefinable.
David-Matthew Barnes’ marvelous Swimming to Chicago, will doubtless be
put on the YA shelf, which is good for the kids but this book deserves a wider,
more adult audience as well.

Seventeen year old Alex Bainbridge finds life difficult
enough figuring out his sexuality, even with the help of his best friend,
Jillian, and his mother’s suicide doesn’t make his choices any easier. What
does, however, is his new neighbor Robby. But as Alex and Robby become close so
do their parents—Robby’s mother engaging in an affair with Alex’s father.
Jillian has her own choices as she finds herself falling in love with Robby’s
father, her English teacher.

A tangled web? Yes. But Barnes handles the complexities of
these relationships with grace and self-assurance, never once losing the thread
or the reader. Since this tale is told from multiple viewpoints—which I
ordinarily hate—Barnes’ skill at characterization comes into play, as he
creates three-dimensional people with separate, distinct voices, all of whom
have vastly different takes on the events at hand.

Although Alex and Robby’s relationship is central to their
characters as well as the plot, I found myself mystified as to what attracted
them to each other. That may not be the point, however. Rather than concentrate
on the specifics of their courtship, perhaps Barnes seeks to show how these
young men use their newly forged relationship—at the end at least—to cope with
a set of problems entirely different than those which confronted them earlier.
No matter the details, he assumes the success of the gay relationship while the
straight ones crumble on nearly every page.

But if that relationship is a bit foggy, there are enough
sharp, cutting details elsewhere to keep you entertained. Martha, Robby’s
mother, is particularly well-done. Drawn to Alex’s recently-widowed father and
disgusted with the ongoing affairs of her English teacher husband, Harley,
Martha’s is an interesting mid-life story set against all the teen drama,
possibly to show that although “it gets better,” adulthood is no picnic either.

Similarly, Jillian’s fell-in-love-and-got-pregnant-by-a-married-man
scenario plays out with implications for both Jillian and Harley immediately,
but for everyone in the long-term. The details and outcome of this sub-plot are
riveting and have a couple of twists and turns the ending hinges on, so not
much can be said without giving it all away. But, again, its success depends on
Alex and Robby as a unit.

David-Matthew Barnes has fashioned a well-told tale in Swimming
to Chicago
—one that will engross readers of all ages no matter which shelf
it ends up on. 

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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