Even these days when young gay adults have a plethora of reading options about themselves, the main characters provided for them to identify with still seem, in many ways, proscribed. Their idols and ideals still seem rooted in the pop culture of the moment. That’s fine for some, but there must be young adults out there who find solace and inspiration in more classic forms of literature and being. After all, classics are called that for a reason. But now, Jeff Mann has written a book for those young gay men who are inspired by Greek poets and walks in the woods instead of Beyonce and skinny jeans, making Cub is a fine, important read.
Seventeen-year-old Travis Ferrell is a strapping, full-bearded, hairy-chested, long-haired young man left behind by a coterie of lesbian high school friends who have gone on to college while he finishes high school. A shy boy, interested in his parents’ farm, classic poetry, and a love of language, he finds a kindred gay spirit in scruffy, scrappy, hirsute auto mechanic Mike Woodson. The same age as Travis, he definitely doesn’t run in the same circle. Brought together by a band of bullies, they fall in love. Will the disparities between them overwhelm what they feel for each other? Time will tell, even if I won’t.
As with some (not all) YA authors, Mann succeeds in finding the boy he was and putting him in both the boys he creates. Although they come from different sides of the tracks, they are both willing to reach out and learn from each other, showing an astonishingly adult viewpoint you find only with other gay youngsters. It’s said that the only difference between gay men and straight men is who they find attractive, but I call bullshit on that. Because of who we are, because of what we feel, and mostly because of how our peers force us to consider our relationship to society as a whole at a very early age, I believe we possess a capability for introspection and a self-awareness our straight counterparts can’t yet access.
Does that mean Travis and Mike indulge in deep philosophical discussions? Well…er…yes, occasionally. Mostly they get up to what all horny seventeen-year-olds get up to–sexual exploration. And Travis begins to deal with his leanings toward bondage and fetish play. This is where Mann truly invests himself in his character. In his travel writing and non-fiction, Mann has fearlessly exposed his most brutish tendernesses, and he shows the same kind of bravery in biting off those chunks of himself to form these young men. And it wouldn’t be a Jeff Mann book without some fine vittles, so the boys eat Southern cookin’ in an orgiastic, Paula Deen-ish carb frenzy.
The boys fight bullies, friends, parents, and even themselves. But amidst the coconut cream pie and gravy-soaked biscuit orgies, between the roping and hiding, swirling around the discussions of who and what Travis and Mike have the potential to become, lies the importance of Cub. It’s a book for those boys out there who have discovered that they are different from many of their friends, but who also feel the division within the subculture they thought they could identify with. Their aloneness does not cease once they’ve figured out their sexual proclivities, but knowing who they are brings even more compartmentalization. Cub lets them feel there’s room at the table for them. And I can think of no one better to write this story than Jeff Mann, whose table is as broad and wide as his heart.
If this doesn’t become a classic, there’s no justice.
© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler