A Review of With Or Without You by Brian Farrey
Simon Pulse, 2011
By REBECCA, May 28, 2012
Evan: Sweet, talented Evan wants to paint, be a good friend, and a good boyfriend—but all that doesn’t leave much time to figure himself out
Davis: Evan’s best friend, he is so used to being bullied or ignored that he jumps at the chance for attention and empowerment, no matter what the cost
Erik: Evan’s boyfriend, Erik is a sculptor, a nursing student, and a total mensch
Sable: He arrives on the scene and begins preaching a rather extreme brand of gay empowerment . . . but it turns out that’s not all he’s preaching
Shan: Evan’s sister and sometimes ally
Evan and Davis are bullied, beaten-up for being gay, and have crappy parents. But senior year is finally over and all they have to do is get through the summer before they can move to Chicago and leave it all behind like they’ve planned for so long. But Evan has a wonderful boyfriend that he can’t tell anyone about and Davis has fallen in with Sable, a mysterious and charismatic alpha dog, and Evan feels like he doesn’t even know him anymore. Suddenly, the future seems very, very uncertain.
With or Without You is an amazing, character-driven novel with a totally unique story. Brian Farrey’s prose is beautiful and manages to skip from love to fear to exhilaration without a false note. It’s definitely one of the best YA novels I’ve read, and an important book, too, I think.
Evan paints to escape—he studies the techniques of his favorite painters obsessively, until he can mimic it. Using windows as his canvas, Evan paints ordinary objects in these famous styles, rendering his everyday world through other artists’ eyes. This is how he meets Erik, the best boyfriend ever, who is also an artist—he sculpts with found objects, transforming them into beautiful creations.
But although Erik has been the best boyfriend ever for almost a year, Evan is paralyzed at the idea of telling anyone about him—even Davis. What Evan doesn’t tell anyone is that in that year, he has been remade as surely as the objects in Erik’s sculptures or the objects in his own paintings: for the first time he values himself—physically, mentally, and emotionally. This year of Evan and Erik’s relationship unfolds gradually, in flashbacks. Meanwhile, in the present, With or Without You opens with Evan and Davis getting gay-bashed. In his anger, Davis brings Evan to the first meeting of a group called Chasers, led by Sable, who invites the group to “learn what it means to be gay! Stop being a doormat!”
As Davis gets in deeper with Sable and the Chasers he seems to be constantly in danger and Evan seems to be living two different lives: one in which he is a scared kid, trying to keep Davis safe from the danger he suspects the Chasers of; and another in which he is in a mature, loving relationship that helps him grow and learn about himself. It’s this tension that makes With or Without You so beautiful, though. Evan is slowly outgrowing his old self and it’s an uncomfortable, scary, and joyous process:
“Crying will give him all the wrong messages. Crying will say, Don’t you understand? I’ve been laughed at my entire life and when you express this much confidence in me, it chokes me and I’d run but there’s nowhere to go because you’re the only place I’ve come to know.
I don’t cry. I will later.
It’s an odd sensation to get what you want and still feel terrified. Inside, aspiration accelerates, blurring everything I know. Outside, my face slackens, resolve masquerades as rejection. Erik sees the battle behind my eyes, the uncertainty in my posture. I watch as his shoulders slowly deflate” (88).
what were this book’s intentions? does it live up to them?
This is a really important book. It is an exploration of relationships, of the terror and thrill of first love, the bittersweetness of outpacing a friendship, and the emotional aftermath of bullying and physical violence. All of this is, of course, enough to make it an important entry into contemporary YA fiction. But it’s the storyline about the Chasers that makes With or Without You really extraordinary.
Without giving too much away, in case folks don’t know what Chasers are, Sable preys on the insecurity, fear, and anger of Davis and the other Chasers, using it to convince them that their problem is that they don’t know what it really means to be proud gay men. To learn to identify with gay history, Sable says, they must learn the phases it went through: revolution, liberation, identification. To learn about revolution, they orchestrate a fight, which Evan participates in to protect Davis.
“‘Now you know how they felt during Stonewall,’ Sable says, propping himself up on his elbows. I follow suit. ‘You know what it feels like to say, “Fuck this shit. I’m sick of it!” You know what it feels like to totally stick it to the people who’ve been sticking it to you forever. And it feels great!’
He shouts the last word and it echoes off the concrete courtyard in front of the observatory. It did feel great. So how can I feel great and still feel like shit?” (193).
In his quest to teach his followers about what it meant to be gay in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Sable also calls their attention to the ways that gay assimilation is, in his view, the opposite of queer power. “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” Sable asks Evan. “No, let me guess: House. Yard. Wearing some stud’s ‘commitment ring.’ Going out for cocktails with your coupled gay friends, talking about how great it is to be monogamous and happy and shit” (195). When Evan asks what would be wrong with that, Sable replies that “you have been bullshitted by society into thinking that’s what you should want. You see Mommy and Daddy all happy . . . with their house and their kids and they’re a loving couple and you think, ‘Yeah, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So that’s what I want too’” (195).
I think it is a bit unfortunate that the revolutionary ideas in the book are only in the mouth of Sable. In this way, ideas about non-monogamy, alternative family structures, and radical empowerment that are rarely found in YA fiction are aligned with an extremist villain who uses them in the service of harm. Still, it’s a really smart look at how (for the most part) it isn’t politics or desires that are good or bad, but to what ends they are deployed. In this vein, running parallel to Sable’s “education” about gay life and history, Evan learns about the AIDS epidemic from one of Erik’s patients who is the last of his group of friends still alive, and this education increases his desire to work towards a world safe for love and sex.
I just really think people will love With or Without You! Great characters, a lovely romance, friend dynamics, a creepy and vaguely cult-y leader, beautiful writing, personal discovery and growth, and a super interesting plot.
Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). Runaway Punkzilla hops a cross-country bus from Portland to Memphis to see his dying brother for the first time in years. On the ride, he catalogues his misadventures in Portland in a very unique voice.
Stick by Andrew Smith (2011). When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of Stick is here.
procured from: the library, but then I bought it because I knew I’d want to re-read it.