“Because u r a fag is scrawled in black Jiffy marker across his locker. Because after school last Thursday, the girlfriend of the guy he loves hurled frozen dog shit at him, and her friends frisbeed his skateboard into the river.” So begins the litany of wrongs suffered by Patrick Furey, a gay teenager bullied by his peers, ignored by his parents and teachers, and rejected by the boy he loves who has a girlfriend.
Canadian novelist Suzette Mayr recently published her fourth novel, Monoceros (Coach House Books), which examines the timely subject of gay teen suicide through the eyes of a variety of characters who did not know the dead boy well. It’s an interesting way to approach the topic, and makes the point that suicide affects a larger circle of people than immediate family and friends.
After a brief introductory chapter, readers don’t hear any more from Patrick, who hangs himself at home “because he wants to be in charge of his own ending.” But his presence is strongly felt throughout the novel, as his English teacher, his guidance counselor, his principal, several classmates, his parents, and the uncle of a classmate all live their lives in the fallout from his death.
Mayr’s novel is peopled with quirky characters like the adolescent Faraday, who finds a world where unicorns exist (and can fix her messy life but only if she remains a virgin) more bearable than the embarrassing sexual fumblings of her parents; and Walter, who as a closeted gay man working in a Catholic high school, has stuffed his feelings with fast food so often that he fantasizes about a return to even a 40-inch waist.
It’s a world both comic and tragic, set against the slush and snow of Calgary, Alberta in Canada. Here, characters trudge through long hours at work, have superficial connections with peers, and fear being outed, being judged and being left. But there is also humor interspersed with heartbreak, seen most in Faraday’s Uncle Suzie, a drag queen named Crêpe Suzette.
Suzette is campy, and a study in curious contrasts. Portrayed as the most honest character, living his life unapologetically as an out gay man and forging a strong bond with his niece, Suzie is also a bit of a thief masquerading as a superhero: “Earlier, Uncle Suzie at the Walmart, fast as Wonder Woman, using all the power he possesses to swipe umptillion pairs of X-tall pantyhose into his Safeway bag. If the clerks don’t notice, well then that pantyhose was destined, right?”
One of the more enjoyable aspects of Mayr’s writing is her ability to capture a variety of personas and depict them with integrity. At first, readers may not sympathize with Max, Walter’s secret lover and the dead boy’s principal—he refuses to take responsibility for disregarding Patrick’s plea for help against his aggressors, he yells at Walter for staining the coffee table, and he can be patronizing and cruel. But when Walter begins to wish for a more open relationship with his lover, Max comes across as a sad creature, trapped in a straight conception of himself that leaves neither man satisfied.
Then there is the dead boy’s mother, Gretta—by choosing to include her Mayr is essentially stating that even Patrick’s parents had little knowledge of his inner life. The portrait Mayr paints of a mother who couldn’t acknowledge that her son was gay because she wanted him to be “normal” but also mourns the loss of her only child is genuine.
You knew he didn’t like school, but you thought, Soon he’ll graduate. You forgot to ask why he spent all his time in his room, who was texting him all the time, his phone chiming like raindrops, why one day he was wearing a locket in the shape of a heart and a blue sweater you didn’t remember buying…If you’d known, you would have done something because you always assumed he would be a banker, not a faggot.
Monoceros toys with the theme of reality versus fantasy, asking, which realm bestows greater happiness on an individual? Can unicorns nudge an imaginative believer through hard times? Does a television show about outer space make its most ardent fan happier than his real life? Is death the final fantasy? Ultimately, the novel gives few answers about which region we should inhabit, although in a society where no one pays attention to a suicidal gay teenager a depressing reality, Mayr appears to favor the unicorn-believers.
by Suzette Mayr Coach House Books