Perhaps a small town in the Ozark Mountains is not an ideal place for a young man who feels very different from everyone around him. Small American towns can be claustrophobic and, in the extreme, bigoted and intolerant. But if that young man is born into a flamboyant and loving family, acceptance and comfort may come in the end.
This is Wade Rouse's story, now published in his memoir AMERICA'S BOY. Rouse was born in 1965 in Granby, Missouri, a town in which everything, he writes, is bland, "white or off-white --- the people, the cars, the clothes, the houses." As a child growing up there, Rouse himself was anything but bland. The opening pages find him, at five years old, dressed in red high heels, a striped bikini and a tin foil crown with a sash proclaiming him "Miss Sugar Creek." Rouse's family, we sense, knows all along he is gay. And while they don't explicitly talk about it or even perhaps fundamentally accept it, they are loving and protective of him and accept that he is "different."
Just when, as a young adolescent, Rouse realizes he is really attracted to boys and not girls, his older brother Todd dies in a motorcycle accident. Afraid of hurting his family any further by coming out, Rouse pretends to be someone he is not for almost the next 20 years.
In order to help mask the hurt, Rouse eats. He finds comfort in food (and his family finds comfort in feeding him), and he thinks it will put up a barrier to intimacy. However, through high school and college he is popular with women, which adds another layer of stress to his life as he tries to thwart their advances without arousing suspicion.
Finally, in his 30s, Rouse comes to terms with his brother's death, his eating and his sexuality. He loses weight, explores his feelings about his brother, and tells his family and friends he is gay. Of course, all of this was difficult and strained many of his relationships, but in the end it was undoubtedly the right thing to do.
AMERICA'S BOY is a quintessential American story: the tug of conformity versus the pull of individualism. Happily, individualism wins in the end but not without struggle and pain. Rouse's memoir, while chronologically ordered, often reads like a series of vignettes --- the chapters are quick, easily read and the humor often belies the seriousness of the topic. Rouse's prose is light, witty and brisk.
AMERICA'S BOY really shines when Rouse describes his family, especially his wonderful and vivid grandmothers. These two women, very different from each other, encouraged him and loved him so strongly that the reader can feel it in the text. His entire family is interesting and make for a compelling cast of characters, with the likeable Wade in the center. Rouse's brother Todd haunts the story and powerfully moves Rouse in both positive and negative directions in his young life.
Wade Rouse's tale is about identity and family (and identity despite family). It is smart and bittersweet and, as a good memoir should be, deeply personal and relatable.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 22, 2010