We look back and identify ground breaking books: Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are, Snowy Day. Do we know they are groundbreaking when they first come out? In some ways, yes. The immediate audience was aware that these books did something different; they changed something in publishing. To me, David Levithan’s newest book, Two Boys Kissing (Knopf, $18.99, out today), feels groundbreaking. The book is about two boys kissing. The title is Two Boys Kissing, and even the cover image shows two boys kissing. This book does not blink. It does not compromise. Don’t like it? Avert your eyes, because this book is. And it’s phenomenal. Like the books listed above, Two Boys Kissing is groundbreaking not because it has an agenda. Not because it’s trying to prove something or change anything. But because it is so well written and is an amazing story. Inspired by true events, the story centers on two boys who are trying to set a new record for the longest kiss — upwards of 32 hours. But there are several other stories woven throughout and they all deal with boys at various stages of their relationships. The novel is narrated by a Greek chorus of gay men who died from AIDS in the 1980s and this is where things really start to get interesting.
The boys are blissfully unaware of this chorus in the same way that gay kids today are often unaware of the struggles of previous generations. At the risk of saying “kids today!”, that’s exactly what’s happening here, but it is entirely appropriate. Kids, all kids, don’t always know the past. Why should they? They’re kids. As frustrating as it might be for the chorus to see that they boys don’t really know their stories, that is the way it works. Each generation fights to make things better for the next one and that next generation reaps the benefit without ever knowing there was a fight.
As for the chorus, their nostalgia for their own lost youths, their admiration for the freedom within the gay community today, and their resentment that they never had the chance to experience that freedom is heartbreaking. Levithan elicits empathy and love from the reader for both generations.
As I’ve said before, he is a masterful writer. This book, like his others, is differently amazing. I finally had the chance to meet him for about 45 seconds and was able to say the one thing that I’ve always wanted to tell him, “I wish your books had been around when I was a teenager.”