Shave the Milk Mustache

  • Ben Stephenson
    A Matter of Life and Death or Something. Groundwood, Douglas & McIntyre
  • Cyndi Sand-Eveland
    A Tinfoil Sky. Tundra Books
  • Ivan E. Coyote
    One in Every Crowd: Stories. Arsenal Pulp Press
Reviewed by Crystal Hurdle

The three books under review each tell the child protagonist and/or the reader that “you are important,” the custody judge’s words to Cyndi Sand-Eveland’s twelve-year-old Mel. Her tale is labelled for children, while Ben Stephenson’s, with the (too?) precocious ten-year-old Arthur, complemented by narratives from the Forest and notebook excerpts from mentally disturbed Phil, is for adults. Ivan E. Coyote’s series of moving story vignettes, some previously published, most of which read easily as memoir, many about teens, are dubbed as “specifically for queer youth.” All are bildungsroman. Sort of.

Labels are an issue. Coyote decries the use of “dyke” and “faggot,” in an impassioned plea for tolerance of the “queer or fat or nerdy or smart or slow or brown or from somewhere that is not here” (except for the likes of Stephen Harper, Christian fundamentalists, and herds of teenaged girls, not without reason). Bullying that leads to suicide (Coyote), the threat of homelessness (Sand-Eveland), and mental illness (Stephenson) are serious issues, explored well.

Writing offers redemption through Coyote’s stories, some about her profession as storyteller in the public school system and elsewhere. Mel had left a journal behind at her mother’s abusive boyfriend’s. A library card provides escape through books, and, improbably, her first boyfriend/first friend and a job. Arthur, who in his woods discovers a cryptic journal written by Phil, questions his neighbours to discover the diarist’s identity. He acknowledges Phil’s suicide and writes in the blank pages what should have happened. The co-authored, completed book ages and composts to new life among the omniscient Trees.

Coyote deems herself a “connoisseur of characters” (and one might say, too, of character), with larger-than-life members of an extensive extended family, the fey boy Francis, who likes dresses (aging in a series of stories, until he himself uses the hurtful word “faggot”), burly bikers with hearts of mush. Showing these characters in action works better than the later pieces, in which she, however sincerely, repeatedly recounts encounters with gay youth who have moved her or vice versa. Yet this redundancy would be a turn-off to the intended audience of teens. In A Tinfoil Sky, though many of the characters are generic, Mel’s cold grandmother and mother—who breathes love by blowing cigarette smoke, a “white light”—are worth the price of admission. And although Phil’s disturbing diary makes for wincing reading, the multi-layered characters of Matter, such as Aunt Maxine who snail mails Arthur letters from scant miles away, fascinate.

Sand-Eveland gives glimpses of mental illness. The grandmother seems to be a hoarder and has covered her windows with tinfoil (paranoid? schizophrenic?). Mel is oddly incurious with the same sanitizing in the life-on-the-street scenes. Homelessness, mentioned as a possibility, never seems real, beyond a night or two in a Pinto. More despair provoking is Stephenson’s love-lost Phil. Early on, I wondered if Phil were (in a parallel universe) Arthur grown up or perhaps Arthur’s “real” father, for whom he yearns, because their quirks (genetic?) seem similar. Is mental illness, on one level, home-schooled childhood curiosity gone rampant? Arthur’s political correctness (he does not sit like an “Indian,” for example) annoys, as does dismissiveness about his adoptive father. Constant fantasies begin “meanwhile, my real dad would [insert over-the-top activity].” Nevertheless, with his intriguing malapropisms (“prisoner in sanitary confinement”), dislike of maple syrup farmers, whose tapping surely hurts the trees, love of real-life Rosie, running around the world for a cause, Arthur appeals as a character, “a secret shaped like a boy.”

One in Every Crowd contains nuggets of wisdom: “[D]on’t pay attention to the haters,” “let your engine warm up,” “do not cave into the pressure from mainstream society [or from the queer community] to fit in.” In the final story, Coyote seeks advice about embarking on married life: a sweet ending to a droll, authentic collection. Of fathers set to spank wayward kids for playing something dangerous, “nothing like pain to remind you of how much you could have been hurt,” and “what any self-respecting butch does [after a break-up] . . . [is to throw herself] heart-first into a complicated home improvement endeavour.”

Coyote’s early stories of childhood in the Yukon suggest life before the nanny state, freedom now unrecognizable, with comb-ball until someone cries and rolling in giant tires down hills. Stephenson’s Arthur builds an in-room igloo out of Styrofoam blocks, but he also explores his Forest. Sand-Eveland’s somewhat timid Mel (for whom the reader roots) gravitates to the small-town library in what seems a bit of a throwback novel, complete with an old-time store-owner from her grandparents’ past, root beer, and matinee magic. By the novel’s end, she has recalled her early life, gaining a sense of self. Similarly, Coyote looks at childhood photos and asks family members if they had seen her lesbianism then. She recognizes, as she has with others, such as her endearing, ever-wimpy cousin Chris, that s/he was “just born like that.”

Stephenson advises, in the form of a kind neighbourhood hermit, to ask questions which “you can answer.” Paradoxically, though Phil’s referential mania is like that in Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols”; self-discovery through another’s journal mirrors that in Ellis’ Odd Man Out; the protagonist’s quest, illustrations, and his frequent use of adjectives (“excruciatingly” so) are similar to Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; and the narrative voice is clever like that of Zusak’s The Book Thief, yet the book is unique.

If as Coyote says, “gender is a spectrum, not a binary,” so too is classification of intended audience. For kids, for adults— does it matter? Arthur says, “I could draw my own universe.” Mel might be able to do the same, and Coyote, through revealing how she, a “gender outlaw,” has invented a happy life, invites others, not just teens, to do so. Delightfully, she answers, “Are you boy or girl?” with “yes.” Arthur asks, “If a tree falls down in the forest . . . does it still make a sound?” and wonders about the X variable involved. Audibility is less an issue than the trees’ power to witness: “[W]e are reading and we are memorizing. . . . We cannot forget.” Nor will the reader forget these books.

This review “Shave the Milk Mustache” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 146-48.

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