A kiss is always a story. But the kiss at the heart of David Levithan’s ambitious, humane, extraordinarily moving new novel is thirty-two hours long, and the story it tells is different from most. Two ex-boyfriends, Harry and Craig, aim to set a new record for longest kiss in front of their high school. They do it to show their support for a friend who was a victim of anti-gay violence; they do it hoping that “it’ll make people a little less scared of two boys kissing.”
It’s a young person’s dream, that a kiss can change the world, and like most of Levithan’s other books Two Boys Kissing has been marketed for young adults. (It was recently long-listed for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.) It is a book for young adults, especially queer young adults. It’s also a book for everyone.
At the beginning of their very long kiss (based on this true event), Harry and Craig are joined by a handful of their friends. By its end, they’re being watched by millions of people online. But also watching them, and narrating the book to us, are the ghosts of men lost to AIDS, the generation who “were going to be your role models….to give you art and music and confidence and shelter and a much better world.”
This Greek chorus of men is the book’s biggest stylistic risk, and I found myself marveling at how brilliantly it works. All-seeing but helpless to intervene, the narrative voice of the book spins away from Harry and Craig to show us some of the lives their kiss will reach: Neil and Peter, a committed high school couple; Ryan and Avery, each newly smitten, Avery frightened that Ryan’s interest will fade when he finds out Avery is trans; and Cooper Riggs, the book’s darkest figure, who spends his nights on hook-up apps and in chatrooms and who dreams of sex as brutal as his self-loathing.
For anyone much older than the characters in this book, the fact that literature aimed at LGBT young people can exist has to be something of an amazement—especially literature as frank in its approach to sex as this book, which has beautifully written scenes of adolescent desire. Levithan’s groundbreaking Boy Meets Boy appeared ten years ago, and as both a writer and an editor he has contributed to the rich body of texts now existent in which being gay is in no way an affliction or scourge, in which it is something almost unremarkable.
That literature needs to exist, and as I read it I can’t help but wonder how my own childhood might have been different if I could have turned to such books. And yet at times—including when reading a book like Levithan’s own entirely wonderful gay fantasia, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which he co-wrote with John Green—I can’t help but feel that the world these books portray, while it may be coming, hasn’t quite arrived, and that the very real darkness many queer teens still face can go unnoticed in a glare of sunshine that seems just slightly artificial.
The wonder of Two Boys Kissing is that it seems entirely adequate to the world in which young gay people live today. It’s a world in which one boy can be embraced, even celebrated by his family, while his boyfriend is terrified of being found out by his parents. It’s a world in which young people can attend a gay prom and fall headily in love, and then find themselves confronting violence on their second date. And, most painfully, both for the reader and for the chorus of lost elders who speak to us, it’s a world in which gay young people still feel driven to commit violent acts against themselves.
But Levithan’s novel doesn’t just feel adequate to our present; it also—and, in my reading of LGBT literature for young people, uniquely—feels adequate to our past. Maybe Levithan’s most poignant theme is the relationship between young gay people and the generation that preceded them, a generation given voice to by the grieving, exulting, longing ghost chorus that speaks to us on every page.
Among the many services this beautiful novel can provide its younger gay readers is to return to them a history of activism and suffering that sometimes, in the joy of the very victories it enabled, seems at risk of being forgotten. “As we become the distant past, you become a future few of us would have imagined,” Levithan’s chorus says. “We resent you. You astonish us.”
Thomas Glave’s ‘Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh’
Duncan Fallowell’s ‘How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits’
Frank Bidart’s ‘Metaphysical Dog’
Alysia Abbot's 'Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father'
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award as well as a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.