Author: S. Chris Shirley
Publisher: Riverdale Avenue Books
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
When seventeen-year-old high school newspaper editor Jake Powell, fresh from Alabama, lands in New York City to attend Columbia University’s prestigious summer journalism program, it’s a dream come true. But his father, a fundamentalist Christian minister, smells trouble. And his father is rarely wrong.
In Playing by the Book, Jake navigates new and unfamiliar ways “up North.” Starting with his feelings for a handsome Jewish classmate named Sam. What Jake could keep hidden back home is now pushed to the surface in the Big Apple.
Standing by his side are a gorgeous brunette with a Park Avenue attitude and the designer bags to match, a high school friend who has watched Jake grow up and isn’t sure she’s ready to let him go, and an outrageously flamboyant aunt who’s determined to help Jake finds the courage to accept love and avoid the pain that she has experienced.
Provocative and moving, Playing by The Book is a feel-good novel about the struggles and triumphs we encounter in the search for our own truth.
“There’s so much to admire in Chris Shirley’s debut novel, but the most remarkable thing may be its voice. Jake is both earnest and skeptical, curious and guarded, and he tells his story with an endearing humility that-somehow-avoids the sarcasm that has become the norm. Playing by the Book reminds us of how rewarding it can be to climb into someone else’s head.”
–Patrick Ryan, author of Send Me and Saints of Augustine
Young Adult books with LGBT themes are important to me. Add into that mix a strong religious angle, and I’m hooked.
S. Chris Shirley, drawing no doubt on his own small-town Alabama upbringing, has created a novel about a teenager’s coming out quite unlike any I’ve read previously. Sure, it has the familiar ingredients: the bright, handsome high school student harboring a dark secret, and the religious family deeply committed to conformity and appearances. Shirley, however, diverges from the expected and takes his protagonist, Jacob Powell, on a literal voyage of self-discovery that I found both authentic and deeply moving.
I particularly liked the quotation from the Greek philosopher Epictetus that appears at the beginning of the book: “If you desire to be good, begin by believing that you are wicked.” This sums up the story eerily well.
Jake is the son of a One-Way Bible preacher, a deep-South Pentecostal and biblical literalist. Jake loves his parents, and they love him and are proud of him. He lives his life by the book—not just according to the Bible he knows inside out, but by the play-book for life that his father has written for him.
When a lucky opportunity takes him from his native Tarsus, Alabama, to New York for a summer program in journalism at Columbia University, all of the carefully maintained defenses with which Jacob has protected himself are assaulted. Shirley manages to avoid making Jacob into a dithering hick by giving him a generous heart to accompany his good Southern manners. Ultimately, faced with one new reality after another that simply cannot be denied, Jacob’s self-imposed shields are brought down like the walls of Jericho.
What is most moving about this novel is that Jacob never abandons his love, either for his parents or for the Christian world in which they have raised him. His faith in God’s ability to “heal” him is sorely challenged, as is his unquestioning submission to his father’s discernment for his future. But his profound Christian identity survives, albeit irrevocably altered.
Young adult books with strong, positive gay characters and religious discussions are rare. Alex Sanchez’s wonderful novel “The God Box” is one of these; but even that book didn’t have the same spiritual intensity we find here. I hasten to add that Shirley infuses the entire story with gentle humor, of the classic country-boy-in-the-big-city type. Watching Jake navigate the social and physical tumult of Manhattan is a joy in itself. The book is a pleasure to read.
It is, perhaps, the East Coast liberal instinct to want the Jacobs of the world to have some sort of epiphany that leaves them despising the confined worldview of their fundamentalist roots. But Shirley doesn’t do that. Jacob is a better Christian than that. As he begins to care for fellow classmates far different from anyone he’s ever known, he reads his Bible and he broods over the logical cracks that form in the foundation of his beliefs.
A gaggle of appealing classmates gives dimension to Jake’s life in New York. The young Greek aristocrat; the teenage Sikh playboy; the Los Angeles surfer dude; and the Park Avenue Jewish American princess. Yet none of these characters is a cartoon, and each of them plays a crucial role in Jake’s spiritual and emotional realignment.
Growing up a laissez-faire Episcopalian in the Northeast, I never faced the crisis of faith that Jacob Powell does in “Playing by the Book.” But I recall anxious conversations with God as I grappled with my own sexuality in prep-school over forty years ago. I know how important religious faith was to me as a part of my coming out, and what sort of role it has played in my life ever since. For S. Chris Shirley, belief in God is not, ultimately, a barrier to happiness, but a means of achieving it. In our secular world, that makes this story something of a miracle.
This review is based on a copy purchased by the reviewer independent of any review copies offered.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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