A review of Street Boy Dreams by Kevin Esser, New York, 1983
With the appearance in America of its third locally grown and published boy-love novel, it is perhaps inevitable that comparisons will be made. Kevin Esser's Streetboy Dreams is less ambitious than Paul Rogers' Saul's Book, being content with tracing a relationship and leaving the cosmic question of responsibility for human suffering aside. And Esser's novel is decidedly less fantastic than Kevin, the book by Esser's mentor, the late Wallace Hamilton, which began the process.
Several years ago, upon its arrival, I praised Hamilton's book in these pages, despite misgivings about it. It was just so good to have a story in which the man didn't do time for love, commit suicide or kill the boy to protect himself that one could ignore the flatness of the characters and the improbability of the circumstances. Re-reading Kevin again before sitting down to write this review, I find that judgement confirmed. Good and brave as Hamilton's work is -- and forever honourable just for being first -- it has not worn well. It is, for instance, a measure of the maturity gained since Kevin was published that we can now dispense with the scene of the lovers walking away, arm in arm, into the swirling snowflakes, happy forever and ever, in favour of the more open-minded conclusion of Dreams. Now happily in each other's arms, Peter and Gito may stay together -- or they may not, given their characters.
Still, Esser's title is Dreams, and some of the fantasy remains. I'm glad we can now have an adult character who not only has doubts about what he is doing, but can realistically behave selfishly, manipulatively, and even foolishly and destructively on occasion. Once into the relationship, Peter is real. But -- can we believe a gay teacher in his thirties who has never considered a relationship with a kid, either psychological or physical? Previously considered it and repressed it, or deferred it to anonymous cruising, perhaps, but never thought of it until suddenly one night . . .? If the repression was that deep, then there is too little inner struggle on Peter's part. And happily we have moved beyond the image of the street kid as a Young Upwardly Mobile Professional waiting to be discovered -- how many relationships have we seen come to grief over that illusion! Gito is realistically capable of manipulation and deception, like Peter. But Gito, while more real and complex than Kevin, still seems, from my knowledge of street kids, a bit too pat for someone supposedly three years on the street. I am not speaking of "innocence", for it is the mark of such kids to know everything, seek to manipulate everything, and yet control nothing for want of self-knowledge. Sinbad, in Saul's Book, is much truer to type. Somehow, Gito's response at the end seems too easily won. It is perhaps both wise, and too hopeful, for Esser to end the story where he does, before the fall's inevitable conflicts about school, responsibility and Peter's other tricks.
All this said, Streetboy Dreams is realistic and persuasive in a way Hamilton's pioneering book was not. The characters do live, and you are drawn into their lives. If they have not the mythic stature of Saul and Sinbad, you nevertheless really are drawn to care what happens to them, for you've known them. The writing is fluid, that of a born storyteller, avoiding the conventions of both pornography and sexual polemic. The book is informed by a sense of good humour -- as in the central irony of the opening, foreshadowing as it does the eventual offer of himself, where it is the boy who offers the man some candy. In this attitude of gentle humour, it is apparent that Esser regards his characaters, for all their flaws, with tolerance, and leads you to do so as well.
Streetboy Dreams is, in short, a good, pleasant read. If it is not read years from how as literature, as I suspect Saul's Book may be, Streetboy Dreams will still richly repay your time now.
Reviewed by D.M. in Pan: a magazine about boy-love, XIX (July 1984) pp. 25-6.