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SEXY is not the first young adult novel that Joyce Carol Oates has written. But in this one she moves into the volatile territory of raging hormones, budding sexuality, and the expectations foisted upon teenagers as they come of age. She asks readers to think about how trust is earned, then broken; how sometimes loyalty seems like an abstract notion; how friendship is tested in times of crisis; and how rumors can poison the lives of the innocent.

The story is about Darren Flynn, a sixteen-year-old high school student who is also a local hero as he moves from adolescence into manhood. "Being a swimmer [and] a promising diver, [he had] advanced to the varsity team at the end of his sophomore year. People began to say how good looking he was … girls liked to say … [he] was sexy, but shy." No one would question that "he was a guy's guy … unmistakably a jock." And up until a snowy Thursday he was happy, popular, full of self-esteem and an overall good kid who worked very hard to be the best he could possibly be.

Then an effeminate teacher offers him a ride home on a snowy evening and Darren's world explodes into a craziness that resembles the Salem Witch Hunts.

"It was in November … after swim practice. The thing with Mr. Tracy, Darren's English teacher.
The thing was how Darren would think of it, afterward.
The thing that was vague and not-named.
The thing that hadn't happened, anyway.
(Had it?)"

After swim practice on that fateful day Darren realizes that his buddy didn't wait for him. With a sigh he decides to walk the mile and a half to his home until "Mr. Tracy fell into step beside [him] on their way out of the building … then outside Darren saw with a sinking heart how bad the weather had turned … and knew he better accept a ride home. From the first, [he] was feeling uncomfortable." He is shocked to learn that this teacher knows where he lives. He doesn't understand why the man is fussing with the vents, and the heat and the radio, all to please Darren who really just wants to get home.

Mr. Tracy tells Darren that he, too, was a swimmer of sorts and a novice diver who never competed: "I don't have the physical equipment, as it's called. Tall, lean-hipped, with broad shoulders. An inverted V! In the water you boys are fast and graceful as torpedo fish. Very impressive." He keeps up a steady patter of praise for Darren mixed with the kinds of comments that could be interpreted as having a sexual overtone. "Later [Darren] would wonder where his mind had been. Only he wasn't a suspicious person. He wasn't one to think too much about the motives of others when he could barely figure out his own."

After reaching Main Street, Mr. Tracy decides to stop at a coffee shop, which feels strange to Darren --- after all, they are almost home. But he is a polite boy with few social skills and has no choice but to go along, though he does stay in the car. He's feeling uncomfortable and restless, as if he's trapped. Mr. Tracy comes out of the café and gives Darren a grape Snapple and a large cinnamon twist, telling him to "enjoy."

Enjoy. There is something about the word, the nudge in the ribs it implies, that Darren doesn't like. Mr. Tracy is creeping along in the wretched road conditions, which gives him time to continue his basically one-sided conversation: " … you are an unusual young person. I don't mean your looks --- you hear enough of that … frankly, it's the way you carry yourself with a natural sort of dignity. You're unusually mature for your age … Darren? I hope I'm not embarrassing you? I'm only speaking the truth."

Darren is as close to jumping out of the car as he can be. A glance out of the window shows them very near the Flynn home and Darren tries pointing it out, calling the teacher by his last name. Mr. Tracy insists Darren call him "Lowell." Darren is "shocked as if the man had reached over in a quick agile gesture and touched him. Darren's face was suffused with heat. His thoughts were confused and furious." He then remembers that this guy always seems to be staring at him during swim meets and taking photos of him as he dives.

The next day Darren goes to school wearing dark glasses. He doesn't think Mr. Tracy has any idea if he told someone --- but what is there to tell? Nothing happened! When the bell rings, Darren is the first one out the door. In SEXY we don't have to wait very long to find out the "what" or "if it happened."

Oates always conjures covert and overt symbols and metaphors, thus it's no accident that Mr. Tracy is teaching Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." He admires The Abolitionist. The Rebel. The Individual. The Poet. The Anarchist. The Mystic. When Darren hands in an unacceptable paper on a class project, Mr. Tracy corners him and suggests that the essay be rewritten. The older man tells him that it can be their secret --- no one needs to know of this special attention. But Darren senses something in the "nearness" of Tracy's being and he refuses to rewrite the paper.

Darren's insecurity about his own sexuality reaches its peak at Christmas break when he and his friends are at the mall. "This gay-boy who Kevin [Darren's friend] swore had followed them into the men's bathroom … was in his late twenties with a narrow, pasty face, glittering studs in his earlobes … his bleached hair lifted in moussed tufts. Darren glanced up to see in the mirror the gay-boy looking at him with what appeared to be a sly, snaky little smile and pink tongue between his lips, and a flame passed over Darren's brain … a scuffle broke out, the gay-boy was down at once on the dirty floor, whimpering and pleading … Kevin cursed and kicked, and Roger cursed and kicked, and Darren did not curse but seized the gay-boy's oily hair and would've slammed his head against the concrete wall except one of his friends stopped him…" Then they run and hide.

Later he wonders: "Did I want to hurt him bad. Did I want to kill him? … wasn't me." Even when the police come looking for him he is convincing himself … "wasn't me. Somebody else, not me." And he begins to sensitize himself to every word and find a double meaning in the nuances of everyday language. Even his mother calling him "honey" sounds effeminate to him; simple, innocent words begin to wound him.

Oates uses Darren's handsomeness and ability as a swimmer/diver to shine a light on the way people are perceived and how they perceive themselves. Darren never thought himself to be special because of his looks or prowess in the water, but his community built certain expectations around him because of those attributes. He struggles to be everything to everybody while drowning in his personal quest to understand and control his volcanic hormonal feelings. The boundaries between high school teachers and their students become a heartfelt morality tale. The question raised is: when does simple affection, respect and encouragement morph into improper advances?

The themes of SEXY reflect so much of what is going on in the real world. And if fiction is supposed to help us make sense of who we are and how we live, then Joyce Carol Oates has timed this book perfectly. So much confusion, anger and helplessness slither through the lives of too many teens today. Perhaps with more writers tackling the problem it will one day be easier to grow up. Both older teens and adults will find SEXY another of this writer's poignant and tough love books. It is an excellent read, in its fast-paced style and novella form. Don't miss this one.


Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on October 18, 2011

by Joyce Carol Oates

  • Publication Date: February 15, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: HarperTeen
  • ISBN-10: 0060541490
  • ISBN-13: 9780060541491