Wednesday, 6 Jul 2022

Tucker Shaw’s “When You Call My Name” is a beautiful, aching YA novel about queer friendship and the AIDS epidemic

A few pages into his fleet, aching new book, “When You Call My Name,” Tucker Shaw invokes late-20th century New York City so tangibly you can smell the cheese pizza, hear the yellow taxis honking and feel the frigid air on the back of your neck.

He regards the “antsy pools” piled up at stoplights in muted, earth-toned overcoats. Loose mufflers dragging through the East Village. “No one looks happy,” he writes through the eyes of Ben, a young, fashion-obsessed man who just came out (as gay, to his mother) and just came out (to New York). “It’s all so beautiful”

Ben’s tale in “When You Call My Name” is contrasted, chapter by chapter, with Adam, also fresh from high school. The latter hails from a loving, liberal home — not much like Ben’s uneasy one; Ben’s mom doesn’t know what to do about his coming out — and is a film student who sees life through a sharp, always-moving lens.

Ben and Adam’s propulsive stories parallel, diverge from and, eventually feed into one another as they discover the freedom and danger of the city, its gay men ravaged indiscriminately by a poorly understood and federally politicized disease.

From the get-go, Adam walks a path toward his first gay love, a taller, older man named Callum who seems to possess the secrets to classical music and emotional enlightenment. Adam worships Callum as the latter plays Bach numbers on a tattered piano. Adam thinks about him night and day, and worries he’s coming on too strong for Callum, that his gorgeous, freckled boyfriend is just dallying with him.

Ben, meanwhile, is essentially homeless and has apologetically tracked down his brother, Gil, a doctor at the fictional St. Hugh’s hospital, for a place to stay. Rebecca, Gil’s girlfriend, senses Ben’s raw talent and pulls him into her world of high-level fashion photography. It’s hard work, and intoxicating to Ben.

Set in 1990 against a backdrop of fashion magazines, pop music, and dance clubs, this is an ostensibly YA book, and proudly so. But a deep well of emotion and experience feeds every chance encounter, every swoon, every heartbreak. Are there other YA books about queer friendship written with such kindness, warmth and insight? Maybe — and if there are, it’s not surprising I haven’t read them.

But there’s this one, and it’s important. The novel increasingly becomes about the height of the AIDS epidemic, and organically so, as Adam spends more time with his elders (uncles Jack and Victor) and the specter of death closes in on all the characters. It’s, at last, a story of friendship and hope and clinging to family (however defined) through the worst times imaginable. Devotion and guilt. Exhaustion and support. I burst into tears the last few pages. Seeing myself so readily in its characters and settings is a testament to Shaw.

Full disclosure: Shaw was my editor for a time at The Denver Post, leaving that position to edit the “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country” magazines. All the while, he quietly wrote YA novels under a pseudonym, the words reflective of his soft-spoken, empathetic ways.

“When You Call My Name” is a detailed tribute to Manhattan and an exploration of LGBTQ culture — mostly gay men, but also at large in its evocative takes on club life, bigotry, the Pride Parade and, as is the running theme, the inescapable reality of AIDS. It’s a lot, and it’s all good, offering a handheld invitation and primer. A window into a world both lost and painfully close, its dynamics further mutated by old bigotry and new delivery methods (ahem, social media).

It’s refreshingly good-faith in its portrayals, gritty at times but always human. The lush swirl of fashion designers, pop lyrics (the title comes from Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”) and film references reads like a flipbook of postcards, disassembled into wallpaper. Nervous, beautiful things surrounded by a screaming world.

There’s plenty of romance, by the way. Some of the soft focus scenes are dreamy and sweet, like a legs-crossed teenager paging through glossy magazines. Shaw’s writing has the precision of a family recipe (big surprise; he’s an award-winning food writer and editor) and confidence to spare. It’s a delight to navigate his descriptive passages, nimbly laid out and crackling with energy. Frontloaded with enticing detail and reverse engineered to feel natural and snappy.

“When You Call My Name” is at last hopeful. And sad. So much was lost, and has stayed that way. But community and friendship and love remains. “Please don’t let go,” Shaw writes in the author’s note. We won’t.

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