Samhain Publishing, $5.50, ISBN 978-1-61922-884-9
Contemporary Romance, 2015
“Oh, I love this song!” Coach – Cash thumbed the steering wheel volume button up until a Taylor Swift hit blasted out of the speakers at max volume. “Haters gonna hate… Sing it, dude.” He was singing and bouncing in the driver’s seat, rolling his shoulders and trying to circle his hips, because Coach could get down pretty damn good on the dance floor for a white boy.
I’m sure you can picture my grimace as I read that scene, and we aren’t even a dozen pages into Amy Jo Cousins’s Level Hands yet. And really now, is it safe to do all that while driving?
Now, while Austin and Vinnie argued, Denny leaned into Rafi and spoke with a low voice in his ear. “Worst. Married. Couple. Ever.”
Oh god, I think I just grew hair on my chest just reading the above moment. It’s… creepy.
Let me get the story out of the way first. Do you remember that really old movie Oxford Blues with Rob Lowe and Ally Sheedy? It’s a pretty bad movie, but worth watching to see a young Rob Lowe show off some skin. Anyway, this is like the gay version. only, we take out Rob Lowe’s character who would stick it to anything that moves and replace that with a guy who, for some reason, just won’t put out. Rafael “Rafi” Castro knows that Denny Winslow wants him bad. Denny’s wish for his 18th birthday was a kiss from Rafi. Rafi gave it to him, and spend the next two years obsessed by the fact that he wants to do more than kiss Denny, but ah, sweet Danny, ooh. I’m not sure why supposedly healthy and hormonal young kids without any religious determination to remain chaste would hesitate to go at it like randy bunnies, so I can only wonder whether it’s erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation that is holding poor Rafi back.
Fortunately, it’s just angst. Rafi is from this side of the street, Denny is from the lofty side, and never the two shall meet – that kind of thing. But Rafi moves to a prestigious college that is also attended by Denny, sparks fly again. Alas, Rafi is now blue because people are suggesting that he has managed to be where he is because of Denny’s family connections.
That was different. But he’d found himself scanning rooms when he entered them, looking for anyone who wasn’t yet another white kid, and getting a moment of relief in every class when it turned out that there were always POCs in his class. Or visibly gay kids—like, rainbow flag T-shirt gay. Or disabled students. Anytime he spotted someone other, the tight band around his rib cage eased. “Cool.”
That’s my problem with this story: nobody here speaks and acts like normal kids. Or even normal people. From adult men singing out loud and twerking to Taylor Swift in public to boys talking like Valley Girls who listen to too much Iggy Azalea and Demi Lovato, the characters here resemble earnest little girls padding their crotches and pretending to be gay boys. Their views about love and sex are more at home in Sweet Valley High books, with minor angst blown up into the-acnes-are-destroying-my-world epic proportions.
The only thing that feels somewhat real is the college-level social justice views, which tend to boil down to a very simplified “diversity means exclusion of white and straight people” philosophy that does more harm than good in the long run, a philosophy in which, in order to be a better person, you must be a special snowflake wearing your difference in the most stereotypical manner like a badge of a cool club – flaming rainbow gay people, non-white people (because virtue and merit are now determined by skin color), and angry disabled people.
Level Hands reads like something written by and for Tumblr denizens. If you don’t mind that the people here all act like weirdos with some wires hooked up into the wrong circuits, as long as there are mawkish and sentimental love in all its vapid little glory as well as some Tumblr-approved narrative as icing on the cake, then this one may be fun. If you want something with characters that resemble realistic kids even a little, well, you have read that supposedly adult male fan of Taylor Swift in the excerpt above. If you can take it, go ahead and be my guest, but I won’t blame you if you make the sign of the cross and hurry over to read something else.