Sweet Like Sugar by Wayne Hoffman

4 Nov

LIPS LIKE SUGARRRRRR, SUGARRR KISSES….actually this book has nothing to do with Echo and the Bunnymen, but whenever I pick up the book this song just saunters into my mind. By the way, I popped this song on youtube just to accompany my review writing, and OMG people are talking about the eighties like my parents talked about the sixties, with words like simpler times, all the music was cool, and how everything was better. I was only a kid during the eighties but that’s not how I remember the decade–I remember it being really commercial and that there were really scary things about, like AIDS and how it was like America moved to the mall. Now I’m not saying that nothing good came out of the eighties, and there is some good music of course, but that’s after all the sucky stuff has been sifted through and discarded–it’s like thinking Fonzie is indicative of the real fifties. Where was I, Oh  Sweet Like Sugar which has nothing to do with this at all.

If I had one word for this book, it would be “sincere.”  That means a lot, because there’s plenty in this world that ain’t.  Actually it reminds me about a conversation with my partner about Penny Marshall as a director, and how what she makes is really schmaltzy, but at the same time it works because she really believes in it.   If you stop and consider how bad Big could have been if someone else was really trying to sell it, the obvious jokes, the attempts at cuteness, it would have been awful, but because Penny Marshall believes in this movie, there’s never that cheap feeling, even with humor, Penny Marshall takes it seriously.

The reason I start with the sincerity bit is because describing the plot makes this book sound incredibly light and fluffy.  Benji a gay Jewish graphic designer just starting out in Washington D.C. befriends Jacob Zuckerman a very old, very orthodox Rabbi.  They bond, they argue, both of their feelings get hurt, and then make up just before Rabbi Zuckerman dies.   In the mean time Benji is at a crossroads in life, ready to settle down, but not settled down yet, putting behind childish things, figuring out his roots and who he is.  Ok, that didn’t sound that light and fluffy at all.

However there is a side of this book that IS very light and fluffy, though not to the extremely shallow end of the pool that some gay books inhabit, and perhaps that’s a good thing here, because Benji is deciding whether to go deep end or shallow end of the pool.   The tone is a bit Young Adult, like Judy Bloom, but for a twentysomething crowd.  Part is what makes it all light and fluffy is how the people talk to each other–notably leaving out the Rabbi–they all speak like characters in an after school special or something.  And the plot, especially the parts where the Rabbi’s old sweetheart shows up at just the right moment, just before a stroke has Rabbi Zuckerman have a change of heart, is awfully convenient at times.  Keep in mind it’s a really good after school special though, and the whole book comes off as incredibly sincere despite the schmaltz.

Inevitably Sweet Like Sugar is about what happens after coming out, after the first burst of freedom which is about exploring this new big gay world.  Today, gay life does not end at the club, though it sometimes begins there, and there are real opportunities for gay people to join in wider communities, wider inclusive communities, and part of that struggle, whether with being Jewish, or Christian, or whatever, is reconciling the flight for freedom with different traditions that surround us.  And that’s important, because I for one don’t want to live in a one-note world, whether that note is gay or WASP or some other type of person.

I appreciate things that are not in this book, for one thing there’s no age-horror here, Benji finds it awkward talking to an old Rabbi, because he’s so conservative, not because everybody over forty is automatically disgusting.  Second, though Benji’s coming out process is shown in little flashbacks, the book is clearly not about Benji coming to term with his sexuality–he neither feels like a victim or overly special because of it, and he comes across as refreshingly ordinary.  Coming from a point of view from someone who fundamentally accepts himself, and who’s sexuality is simply what it is, is quite refreshing.  On top of that is Benji’s growth from looking for a certain type (blonde, Aryan) to going beyond that.  Typing isn’t a good way to find a life partner, because that’s only looking at the image–not the person.   In the end the most touching part is Benji’s sincere desire to continue growing–it’s not like he’s finished after coming out, or even getting a partner, he’s just begun.

The scenes where Benji and the Rabbi talk is where the book comes alive–the things they talk about, tradition, keeping Shabbat, holidays, histories both personal and general, keeping kosher, as well as Benji’s reflections on these things is where we leave the after-school special stuff behind and get into the good stuff because in their interactions Benji and the Rabbi become less like characters and more like people.  It’s a pity there weren’t more scenes like these in the book, because about half-way through I, like Benji, found myself looking forward to them.

In the end I highly recommend this book–light enough for an airplane, interesting enough to mull about later–and I’m very interested to see what Hoffman comes up with next.

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