Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin
Published by Atria Books
Publication date: May 21st 2013
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Coming-of-age, Contemporary, Social Issues
This spring has been a marvelous one for wildly creative authors and their unusual creations. The trend continues with Abigail Tarttelin’s debut novel, Golden Boy, and its tender protagonist, Max. Max is sixteen and in addition to the burdens of being a teenager he is saddled with a secret that is kept even from his own brother. Max is intersex or what used to be known as a hermaphrodite. He presents as a male thanks to hormone injections when he was thirteen, but for the most part has the sex organs of both genders. In many cases the parents of such children decide shortly after birth to surgically alter the infant to be one sex or another. Max’s parents did not do this but opted to see how he would develop mentally and emotionally before making a decision. It is this waiting and the attendant lack of information or discussion that gives Max the instinctive feeling he has made life incredibly difficult for his parents, that his oddness is as much as anyone should have to handle so don’t cause any other problems. He is an exemplary son but this passivity leads to an attack on him that has far reaching implications for everyone. The fact that events escalate so quickly and horribly within the first twenty pages are indicative of a novel that will explore issues well beyond the expected and Tarttelin does just that.
Golden Boy is written with five narrators in addition to Max: his mother, his younger brother Daniel, his doctor, his friend Sylvie, and his father, allowing insight into not only their relationship with Max and the situation but to their own psyches and secrets. Of these, Daniel stands out for his unusual nature, endearing at times, but just as often frustrating. His differences are as much on the surface as Max’s are hidden. His often Asperger-like responses to the world cut through the smoke-and-mirrors of adultspeak and say what many are thinking. This makes him a perfect foil for Max who seldom says what he thinks but wishes only to please.
I wish I could just tell everyone. I wish being me was normal, or if not normal, then accepted. I wish I didn’t have to hide all these thoughts. I wish I didn’t have to be alone with this, to worry that I’ll always be alone.
The most difficult character to understand is Max’s mother. Her protestations of love feel hollow and come off more as not wanting to hear or see the truth but simply hoping that life can continue on as it has been, that Max’s sexual ambiguity is not a component of his being. But being intersex is not something that goes away; as the child becomes an adult decisions have to be made or at the very least, education is needed for all parties and there should be discussions about what is happening and what can be expected. Karen Walker has no interest in any of this and did not talk to Max about it. As long as the surface was sparkling and clean, she didn’t want to know what was underneath.
With this picture I want to capture something, a moment in the life of our family when everything is perfect, some example of happiness we could all aspire to achieve every day, in case we forget how to do it or what we are aiming for.
For some the subject matter of Golden Boy will be too unusual to allow deep appreciation of the novel but Tarttelin has done a masterful job with a tangle of topics that move well beyond sexuality. What could be salacious material is handled with a quiet compassion that allows the reader to move to a deeper level for each of the characters. We are challenged by what normal means, who is and who isn’t and if it is even a valid designation anymore. With Tarttelin’s sensitive touch we know Max to be a kind, thoughtful, confused teenager with a chromosomal anomaly. It is the world around him and its perceptions that are on trial. How each character responds and reacts, says more about them than about Max, whose thoughts are quite simple yet profound.
I am a brother. I am not a sister. I am not an everything. I am not a nothing. I have no big choices to make. I am a teenager, and my biggest job is to be normal.