REVIEW: With or Without You by Zane Riley

With or Without You by Zane Riley (July 21, 2016); 348 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

So, ever since I reviewed Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley (here), I have been waiting for the release of the sequel, With or Without You, and guess what? It’s here!

If you’ve not read my review of GYOW, pop over there and do that first, or be, at least, forewarned: I’m going to talk about this like a sequel, as if these characters and this situation are familiar because, to me, they are. And I’m happy to see them get more book space.

(Oh, and probably: spoiler alert for book 1.)

With or Without You picks up where Go Your Own Way left off: Lennox McAvoy—a nominally homeless, rather crass high school senior—is living with (and falling for) the relatively-privileged Will Osborne. Lennox was living in a residence motel after being dumped there by an uncaring grandfather and The System (which, after releasing him from a pretty abusive juvie situation, slapped an ankle monitor on him and told him to go be successful… without going too far). Will’s family has taken him in, but they discover that keeping him safe and well-behaved and at “home” is a bit like trying to hold on to a wisp of smoke with nothing but a tissue and a rubber band; Lennox just won’t be contained that way.

Lennox has a dirty mouth and no filter, and absolutely no tolerance for folks (like Will’s dad) who neither trust nor particularly like him. Like a good Harvard Business School grad, he’s proactive: when he senses someone’s not going to treat him with the respect or understanding he needs, he acts like a jerk and pushes them away before they get the chance to hurt him.

Ironically (in the O. Henry sense, not the Alanis Morissette sense), the people Lennox trusts least (Will, Will’s dad and Will’s stepmom) are the most likely to help him stay safe and get him through high school and into college. Ironically (in the O. Henry sense, but maybe a little in the Morissette sense here, too), those folks are so wrapped up in their own ideas of what’s right and good that they do a bit of metaphorical foot-shooting and end up suffocating the kid with their good intentions.

Will pushes Lennox to apply for college at a very expensive, very exclusive music school (Lennox plays several instruments and composes music and is an incredible musician, after all, and Will… really, really isn’t), and it brings out the fear that underlies Lennox’s bravado. What if he bombs the interview or the audition? What if he doesn’t even get that far? What if Will goes away to college in New York as planned, and Lennox is left alone with nothing, holding his… gonads… and has to join the army?

Or what if he gets in after all, but can’t afford to go?

While Will’s in this up to his eyeballs, and has a lot of figuring out to do (how do you support someone without imposing your own values on them?), this book feels like Lennox’s story. Lennox has to learn to trust everything: Will’s dad, his stepmom Karen, Will, and even himself and his own abilities. He also has to learn to let go (his best friend Lucy is leaving him behind, moving to Boston with her new girlfriend). Finally, he has to learn to settle down into happiness and not screw it up just because he’s afraid and wants to ruin stuff before something or someone else does it for him. He is, in the classic sense of irony (and, okay, in Morisette’s sense, too) his own worst enemy.

Not that there aren’t enough really bad enemies out there for him anyway. His own grandparents reject him and keep him from seeing his little sister (his grandparents are white and he’s the child of a Black woman and a white man); the authorities don’t really care who or what he is, as long as his ankle monitor doesn’t indicate he’s gone outside his permitted zone; the racist homophobes at the motel where he was living just want to beat on somebody (he’ll do); Will’s dad kind of thinks he’s a punk, an opinion which may or may not be driven by some privileged racism.

This is a smart and compelling follow-up to Go Your Own Way. (It’s great as a sequel, but can also be read on its own, without having read the first book.) Lennox is tough to love; Will, though his motivations are probably more familiar to most middle-class readers than those of Lennox, is also tough to love much of the time. In fact, almost everybody in this novel (I’m giving Karen a pass) is a well-meaning jerk of one sort or another. (Okay, and the racist homophobes don’t get passes, but they also don’t get to be included here… they’re just jerks, not at all well-meaning.) All of them are interesting and compelling, complex enough as characters to pull you in and make you care what happens to them.

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REVIEW: Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley

Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley (May 5, 2015); 326 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

I just flew through Go Your Own Way, and boy, are my arms tired.

JK, you guys, my arms aren’t tired at all. I could easily fly through another book about these characters. This is the first book in a series (…of two? …of more? I don’t know yet!), and when I got to the last page, I was unhappy to read “The End” and then an announcement that the story would continue in the next book. THAT book, which I have been calling Go Your Own Way 2 in my head but is really called With or Without You, will be released on July 21, 2016. Even though that’s less than a month away, I’m feeling anxious to get my hands on it so the story can continue.

Go Your Own Way is two stories, intertwined. The chapters oscillate between points of view: there is Will Osborne, a “good kid” struggling to drag his too-obviously-gay self through a hoary and hostile public school, when in comes the “hood” (do the kids today still say that?) Lennox McAvoy fresh from reform school, a sort-of classic Bad Boy with whom Will is assigned to work on a year-long literature project. Soon, Lennox has him in his Sex Crosshairs and sets up a relentless effort at seduction. It’s all very effective, except that he’s crude, situationally tone deaf, and sometimes mean as a wet cat caught in a corner. OK, well, it’s still pretty effective. Will soon discovers that Lennox is more than just a jerk: parents dead, he’s been dumped by a cold grandfather in an unlockable motel room where he bars the door with a steamer trunk and scrounges an existence from pilfered fruit and well-read books, while in the parking lot outside, racist (you’ll see) homophobes throw glass bottles at his door and threaten him with violence.

Despite Lennox’s rough and oversexed nature, Will falls. And then Will’s father lands in the hospital in a coma, so Will is left worrying with his stepmother (who’s kind, who’s a nurse, and who’s hanging onto Will with all her remaining strength) while his father persistently deteriorates.

It’s the story of two boys who have lost parents (both Lennox’s mother and father have died; Will’s mother died when he was younger and his father appears to be about to die). But while Will’s father (before he landed in the coma) and stepmother are both caring and supportive, Lennox’s grandparents take neglect to the edge of hate (it probably doesn’t help that they are white and Lennox’s mother was Black, making him “not quite/not white” (as Homi Bhabha wrote) and the object of the white grandparents’ scorn). So it’s the story of socio-economic privilege learning to trust and care for/about someone without (without home, safety, nutritious food, a caring and present family…), and also the story of someone without learning to trust and care for/about someone so privileged. It’s also the story of the very different ways privilege can affect our experience of difference—being a middle-class, white, gay boy is radically different from being a poor, parent-less, gay boy of color.

But this is me being preachy; the novel doesn’t preach like this. Instead, it tells a really great story, part love story (and that is also the story of how to reach across a flaming divide of privilege and difference) and part tale of danger and rescue (I mean that both ways: how to rescue someone you love and how to rescue yourself—both are dangerous).

As Will falls deeper, it turns out Lennox is also really smart (a math ace), and kind of lovely when you peel off the stinking jerk skin he wears for protection.

Go Your Own Way is suspenseful without literal ghosts (though the memory of dead parents haunts this, and there are ghouls in the motel parking lot who haunt and threaten Lennox); it’s emotionally engrossing without the over-high drama of a pantomime. It exercises every nerve I’ve got, keeps me teetering and balancing on edge, worrying, hoping for some safety and peace. It makes me want the story to continue (and, yay, it’s about to do so!), even though my damn proverbial arms are tired.

The sequel, With or Without You, is available for pre-order from Interlude Press here. It will be released on July 21, 2016.