By Dan Woog
It may not be the traditional format for a winning novel: cross-country running. Lacrosse. Wheelchair basketball. Gay romance.
But Jim Provenzano's "Every Time I Think of You" works. The author – whose previous books focus on wrestling, AIDS and the lust-filled world of bicycle messengers – has crafted a novel about young adults that may not make the list of most librarians' recommended "young adult novels." There's a bit too much sex – gay sex – in this one for some educators' tastes. And it's graphic.
Yet "Every Time" does what good literature should. It opens readers' eyes, minds and hearts to corners of the world they may never have realized existed. Confession: Although I am a high school soccer coach, I'd never thought about the impact a devastating sports accident could have on an athlete. Especially one who was in a torrid, but meaningful, gay relationship.
The story is set in Pennsylvania, in 1978. Reid Conniff is a high school student serious about running, academics and masturbating in the woods. One wintry afternoon, near his favorite tree, he comes across (in every sense of the term) Everett Forester, a privileged, lacrosse-playing boarding school boy.
As is true in most adolescents' lives (and every novel), stuff happens. There is sexual exploration (Everett has had a lot more experience than Reid), the resultant embarrassment of getting caught, and the arc of both lovers trying to be at the same place at the same time (emotionally as well as physically).
There is not, however, a lot of angst about being gay. Provenzano set this story – and "PINS," his wrestling book – in what he calls "a bubble of time." Stonewall had already jump-started the gay rights movement, but AIDS had not yet reared its ugly head. The author calls those years "a halcyon moment, when for a teenager it was not horrible to be gay."
In fact, both Reid and Everett's parents are relatively accepting about their sons' sexuality. It doesn't hurt that Provenzano has created what he calls "two smart, well-educated and self-aware" protagonists – boys for whom acting on their urges brings more joy than fear.
What Provenzano did not set out to create, he says, is a novel about disability. Though "PINS" – written in 1999 – includes a debilitating neck injury that nearly kills the main character, Everett's paralysis (he's clobbered by a lacrosse stick) is less metaphoric, more an opportunity to explore the effect of disability on two growing boys who just happen to be gay.
"I took two corny genres – coming out and bildungsroman (coming of age) – and at one point, I just realized the disability was going to happen," Provenzano explains of the writing process. "Sometimes your characters' paths don't go where you expect."
Once he saw the path his book was taking, Provenzano did a prodigious amount of research. He studied spinal cord injuries, the growth of wheelchair sports, and the ins and outs of paraplegic sex.
In the back of his mind, always, was the story of Ed Gallagher.
In 1985 Gallagher – a 27-year-old former University of Pittsburgh football player – tried to commit suicide by throwing himself off a dam. That was better, he thought, than to die "a fag with AIDS." (He was not, despite his fears, HIV positive.) While Gallagher did not succeed in killing himself, he was paralyzed for life.
In 1994 he wrote a semi-autobiographical book, "Johnny in the Spot." When Provenzano was writing a sports column (the predecessor to "The OutField"), he had what he calls "an awkward conversation" with Gallagher.
"I read his book, and hated it. The dual narrative format was very difficult to follow," Provenzano recalls. "But I admired him greatly. He was an inspiration to me. I wanted to write a romance Ed would have appreciated."
Gallagher was outspoken about the physical needs of paraplegics, and Provenzano addressed the topic head-on too.
"They're 18," he says of his characters. "I didn't want to dodge the fact that they want to have sex – and they do. But I really wanted to get the facts right. It couldn't be just nudge-nudge-wink-wink."
The first reviews are strong. Author Andrew W. M. Beierle called it "a rare combination of delicacy and power (that) rekindled faded memories of the intensity of youthful desire."
Ray Aguilera, former editor of Bent Voices, a magazine for disabled gay men, lauded Provenzano for "daring to show that disability and sexuality aren't mutually exclusive, and that crips can be just as good in bed (or elsewhere) as their non-disabled counterparts."
It's not easy to write a novel about sports, gay teenagers and sex in (and out of) wheelchairs. Jim Provenzano has done it, with grace and power. All readers – disabled or not – can stand and applaud.