Common Sons by Ronald Donaghe
Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the mid-1960s, Common Sons not only anticipates the coming gay revolution, but delineates its fields of battle in churches, schools and society, pitting fathers against sons, straight teens against gay teens, and self-hatred against self-respect.
From the opening scene (where a reckless bout of drinking at a dance ends in a very public kiss between two teenage boys), the citizens of the small town of Common, New Mexico, become aware of the homosexuality in their midst.
The two boys are unable to deal with their struggle in private as the story of their public kiss spreads through the small town. Some seek to destroy the relationship between the two boys, while others seek to destroy the two boys themselves. Common Sons is a moving tale of self-discovery, love and finding the courage to come out and come to grips with truth in the face of hatred and adversity.
Common Sons is the first book in the Common Threads series about the same couple with a vast array of supporting characters that feature in their life. This story introduces Joel and Tom as their close friendship turns into a relationship, complete with a number of problems ranging from their young age, conservative community, parental disapproval, to violence and its aftermath. Although decently written, the book drags in some spots and coasts easily over others which gives a final uneven pace and feeling. However, there are several poignant moments and the descriptive quality brings the small town into sharp relief. The characters are interesting, Joel especially so and likely to linger in the readers’ mind after the book ends.
The story opens with Joel waking up smelling like sex. He reminisces about the night before when his best friend Tom got drunk and innocently kissed Joel. Unfortunately they were in front of a group of rowdy teenagers, which has repercussions in the community. However, Tom and Joel go further than just kissing that night leaving the two boys with very different reactions to their newfound intimacy. Not only will their new relationship be tested by their upbringing and parents, but also by the community.
Set in the mid 1960’s in Common, New Mexico, the story gives an authentic backdrop to its plot. The oppressive heat is balanced by the furtive joy of the boy’s relationship. The story has an innate descriptive quality that drops the reader immediately into the dust of the time, the lazy days with nothing to do but work on the family farm or attend to duties set out by parents, the concern over finances when sand storms roll through. It’s easy to see how time seems to stand still in such small towns yet continues to progress and change in subtle, quiet ways. The conservative views of the town are echoed easily in the class distinctions at the high school, farmers versus ranchers versus city kids. Here the intimate setting is well crafted and fully explored to show the many facets of the time frame and attitudes. The beauty of the land is highlighted several places and is as important to the book as the characters themselves.
The plot itself is decent though predictable. The main conflict and tension comes from Tom’s religious upbringing and his belief that acting on his desires was a sin. Additionally the boys aren’t exactly the most discrete about their relationship and this causes problems that are occasionally violent. There is subplot about Tom and Joel being harassed by an angry local boy who ends up causing a traumatic event for the entire town. This is perhaps one of the weaker aspects of the story because it feels too easy and the resolution, while tragic, felt too much like a way out without harming the main characters. For the most part, the plot follows the two boys as they individually and together figure out their relationship, what they want, what they’re willing to give up, while occasionally seeking the advice of a few key adults. The story does drag in several places when the descriptions of the land, mountains, and mental wanderings of the narrators send the book on unimportant tangents. These repetitive descriptions and mental trips help solidify the setting but slow the pace and interest of the story. I found myself almost skimming these since several of them were repetitive from earlier scenes and phrases. They do create a very vivid landscape of the time and area though.
The story is told in alternating third person point of view from a number of the characters. There is the main protagonist in Joel, a sixteen year old farmer’s son that is very grounded in reality and the earth. He’s pragmatic and his goals for the future are to work on his land and live in Common. He’s not simple or lazy. He works hard and appreciates the land with a rare joy that shines. Joel’s honest and upfront actions are a delightful and refreshing aspect of the book and above all, Joel shines as the most interesting and charismatic character of the book. His loyalty and passion are clear and contrast well with Tom’s fearful and often neurotic personality. The only caveat I have about Joel is that he often is too caught up in his emotions to think about the reality of situations. The two boys take chances that are clearly risky to the reader but they act shocked when something negative happens. This plays to their youth and immaturity but also creates an artificial bubble around them, offering clean solutions to their problems.
The character of Tom is more difficult to like due to his insistence on clinging to ignorance and rhetoric. When he finally wakes up with the help and advice of a younger, more mature boy, Tom’s character picks up. He is more interesting and dynamic when thinking for himself and displaying a touching insecurity alongside newfound confidence. He seems to waiver quite a bit from confident, intelligent, mature young man to emotional, overwhelmed, and scared. Additionally there is a large cast of supporting characters that mostly stay within classic stereotype frames. The community at large, including both sets of parents, are familiar roles and thus not much time or energy is spent expanding them. The one exception is Joel’s father who is given a particularly false military experience to be able to relate to Joel but the detail seems contrived.
The various secondary characters help carry the tension of the story, since the main tension exists between their reactions and beliefs and the boys’ hope to be together. Once Tom and Joel reconnect and get past their initial reactions to sex, the story is careful to let bad things happen to them from a distance. Bad things do happen in the story to both the young men and the community but often these are glossed over, played down, or presented after the fact. This keeps the two young men in a happy ending but also limits the emotional impact of their coming out and coming of age tale. Overall, the decent writing, even with a few uneven pacing spots, gives an interesting and classic tale that will likely resonate with readers. I’m debating continuing with the series and if Tom and Joel are the focus, I’ll definitely pick them up.
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