With The Evolution of Ethan Poe (Kensington Books), Robin Reardon provides a fresh, engaging example of why the coming out story is not irrelevant, instead a crucial, continuing story with countless raw variations. Yet narrator Ethan’s coming out is only part of Evolution’s larger narrative focusing on a rural Maine town’s debate over integrating Intelligent Design, the religious pseudo-science that dismisses evolution, into public school science classrooms. One thing Ethan Poe, a caring, sweet, healthily self-obsessed teenager accepts when surrounded by everyone’s problems is “it’s not all about him.”
His parents are in the midst of divorce, which led his year-older brother Kyle to religious fervor, taking the Bible literally, rationalizing mutilating his right hand with Matthew, Chapter five, verse thirty: “If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, and throw it away from you.”
Jorja, Ethan’s heavy-duty-Goth-Christian best friend, the only person he’s come out to, prays for him, hoping he’ll straighten up, or have strength to never “give into the Beast.” The Beast she says she’s seen, but won’t tell him when, how, or any details about the home life she’s increasingly quiet about.
The number one thing on Ethan’s mind is – well, that’s sex. The number two thing is telling his mom he’s gay. Timing’s never right, she’s always stressed about the divorce, Kyle’s hand problem, or the growing tension over the school-board elections where the Intelligent Design debate stems from. Kyle’s mom, a libertarian, is an outspoken opponent, causing her to lose lifelong friends.
Ethan finds someone he can talk to in Etta, his mom’s friend with the reputation of eccentric loner. She’s unlike anyone he’s known in her worldly opinions, open politics, and passion about alternative religions and power animals. She’s running as competition against the school board candidate who supports Intelligent Design, and in turn is receiving death threats.
Ethan’s in an adorable store-bought Goth phase – partly inspired by his distant ancestor, Edgar Allen. Reardon focuses on subtle, real moments, like his reaction to a picture of a yin-yang circle tattoo:
I have a T-shirt Mom bought me last June, white with a red and white yin-yang symbol on it. I can’t even remember wearing it; if it had been black, maybe. But I do know yin stands for inward, or female, and yang is outward, male. The two together are balance. And, in a way, they’re also androgynous. A balance of male and female, not all one or the other. And it hits me all of a sudden: This is me.
Reardon’s uncanny gift for inhabiting a teen boy’s headspace keeps you completely with Ethan, experiencing life as he does: nervous when coming out to his mom, relieved she isn’t horrible, disappointed she implies it’s a phase, excited as he flirts with classmate Max, elated when they hang out and it feels like a date, frustrated as the kind-of-date turns awkward, the boys having little in common besides a tiptoed-around mutual attraction.
Not your cookie-cutter coming out story, Ethan’s is a reflection of the contemporary complex state of being GLBT: accepted in ways unimagined decades ago, simultaneously discriminated against in new and surprising ways (like how impactful the Intelligent Design debate’s threat is to gays with its mingling religion with government, or how gay men can’t donate blood or organs).
Ethan and Max find themselves in that phase when sexual fantasies become relationship realties. They drive each other crazy, make-out, argue, annoy, make up, while rejecting the dating maxims followed by straight couples around them. Are they boyfriends? Friends with benefits? They struggle with finding out “how to be their own shape.”
Reardon deftly balances large numbers of supporting characters, sprinkling moments of weakness, integrity, and growth between them. Reardon’s greatest talent, in this as well as her previous novels, is how she brings together diametrically opposed characters and makes them talk it out: Jorja squares off with the history teacher about whether the U.S. was founded a Christian nation; Max’s insistence to blend with the crowd grates Ethan’s desire to be himself regardless; a tense town hall meeting pits impassioned citizens debating the line between science and religion; Kyle and his increasingly exasperated mom butt heads over his religious reasoning with what turns out to be a serious medical condition, Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Reardon showcases opposites communicating, highlighting the importance of dialogue and debate as the only way to co-exist while the many conflicts take often shocking and exciting twists.
In the beginning, Ethan “doesn’t feel like getting into it” when those around him oppose each other. As these debates reveal themselves an integral struggle in his life and the lives of those he loves, he’s first surprised by his own voice entering the debate hesitantly, then comes to be comfortable in his voice as one of many in the ongoing conversation.
When Ethan finds himself in such situations—like when his dad who doesn’t know he’s gay walks in the bathroom without knocking while Ethan is drying off after a shower, his recent illegally acquired rainbow yin-yang tattoo exposed on his butt-cheek—it’s clear Ethan isn’t going to take his dad’s anger sitting down. As moments like this happen, chances are you’ll be hooting in your head “You go, Ethan Poe!”