'Playing Soldiers in the Dark' review

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Stephen Dueweke, Playing Soldiers in the Dark (Bagman Press, 1992), 294 pages, paperback, $12.95.
Playing Soldiers in the Dark is a tale of pursuit. First fourteen-year-old Jim Brandekker is pursued by his
own “ghosts,” the internal voices who taunt him with fears that he might be gay. Later he is pursued (more
tangibly) by his high-school teacher, Shannon O'Donnelly.
Though not a typical coming-of-age story, Dueweke's novel does involve Jim's sexual initiation. The
book is deadly accurate in its parody of a ephebophile's obsession, but amid the laughs there is honesty about the
persecution men like Shannon face. Also, as its title suggests, Playing Soldiers celebrates the rewards of play.
Especially playing with words. Appropriately, Dueweke's young hero wants to be a poet. The boy's
ghosts, with their ongoing commentary, sometimes act as Greek chorus—but they are also Muses. Jim
exorcizes his worries by exercising a talent for wordplay, as his ghosts sing, “Infantile, childish boy! Jump in a
rain barrel and roll downhill. Let's all sing and sway! Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I'll go suck
worms. Big, fat, juicy worms, eeny-weeny-squeemy worms, see how they wiggle and squirm? Chomp off
their heads, and squeeze out their juices, and throw their tails away! Nobody knows how I survive on worms
three times a day.”
Whether Shannon can capture Jim's heart is the main concern. But before drawing the reader into the
chase, Dueweke introduces a richly-detailed supporting cast.
Among them are Jim's parents, easily
summarized: there is his mother who, shopping for the boy's clothes, insists, “Your poor health and you're not
wearing undershirts?” And whenever his father is present, Dueweke slyly refers to Jim as “her son.”
More memorable amongst Jim's family is Farfar, the grandfather. Any small-town boy knows this
character: the crazy old man who loves to take them on outings, sharing memories of a simpler past.
[Jim] stayed with Farfar for hours, as a little kid. He sat in Farfar's lap in his
creaky king wicker chair out on the veranda. They walked in the rain under the green
green buds. In the summer Farfar would stargaze, holding Jim in his arms. They
whitewashed the cemetery wall with lime, and Farfar told Jim about Tom Sawyer and
Huckleberry Finn out loud…Sometimes they talked in words they made up. And Jim
really shared the stuff Farfar had to say. He listened to his stories and his memories.
And Farfar whispered the first poems Jim heard. He spoke right into Jim's ear. Those
words were real, made outta warm, old breathing that rushed his ear in a spiral, soaked
with rum, bay rum, and pipesmoke from the Virginia hills.
Then there is Chris from summer camp.
Homesick on the bus, the boys comfort each other:
“Christopher slept, with his head on Jim's shoulder, and Jim burrowed his nose in Christopher's hair, inhaling
the gold of body heat and shampoo.”
Drifting lazily on a floating log, Chris and Jim dare one another to smell the other boy's underwear. As
they describe their scents, Dueweke reveals his gift for unexpected imagery.
Jim
studied
the
twin
blue
stripes
stitched
into
the
waistband.
“Fruit-of-the-Looms, huh?”
Chris lowered his jeans. “Official! My Mom buys only the best.”
“I wear little kids underwear,” Jim said.
“What brand?”
Jim fumbled his own jeans open. “I dunno. My ma buys ‘em in the little kids
department. The red stripes give ‘em away.”
Chris snookered Jim's briefs. “Those're racing stripes—”
Jim giggled, tickled. (Embarrassed, too—nobody had ever touched Jim down
there.)
“—means you're always horny.” Chris dug his hand as far as he could into Jim's
jeans. “Cripes! Is your dick as big as your balls?”
Jim pumped his legs. “Time for that sniff.” He ducked in and brushed his
lambent nose along a seam of those Fruit-of-the-Looms. He inhaled, and the boy
inside got bigger. The boy smell filled his mouth: poultry seasoning and cotton candy.
“Ummm, ummm, good, huh?”
Jim gasped. “Pine and clover! You smell like the woods, maybe rain. Your
turn!”
“This'll be gross!”
“A promise is a promise is a deal—”
Chris plied his open mouth against the front of Jim's underpants. He licked the
inside of Jim's fly, found Jim's acorn near the waistband, and frogged Jim, his nose in
Jim's bellybutton. He slurped, and sat up. “Piss and apples!”
Jim rollicked, and protected his slobbered-up underpants. “French cooking!” A
good feeling banged between his hips.
“A biology experiment!”
Jim held Chris by his shoulders. And Chris coaxed him, pinching the tab of his
zipper. “You do smell good…”
The preceding passage foreshadows how “little kids underwear” will become more significant.
We also meet two seniors who share an English class with gifted freshman Jim. There is aptly-named
Randy, and her heterosexual counterpart Wendy (who'd “do anything, with any boy”); they wager which one
will be Jim's “first fuck.” Another classmate is homophobic Donald, who stirs a rough-trade infatuation that
hints at impending danger.
Finally there is Shannon, whose bemused students call him “Mad O'Donnelly.” Jim, reminded of Edgar
Allan Poe's long black hair, prefers “The Raven.” Shannon cultivates an eccentric persona: idolizing Thoreau,
he takes “Profound Walks” through nature, and refers to his Physics classes as “Natural Philosophy.” An orphan,
he still lives with the aunt who raised him. Auntie Thelma suffers Shannon's boy passions with condescending
tolerance.
Unlike the tender explorations with Chris, Jim's dalliance with Shannon is charged with tension. Older
now, Jim tentatively approaches the volcanic impulses of adult sexuality. In an alchemy of poetic language,
Dueweke brings their inner struggles to the surface.
“I got my own thinks. Can't a boy even think about what he wants to think
about?”
Shannon could taste the body heat of this boy. “Sometimes,” Shannon spoke
with the tone of translunar communication, like a husked spirit coming through the
wine glass in a railway carriage on an Irish poet's September-May honeymoon. “But a
boy should be fulfilled.”
Fulfilled? That word suffered with deepness, pooling with wildness inside Jim,
like sweet slender yellow leaves ripped from the wild peach trees on the outskirts of
his family property. Maybe The Raven could read minds, and the thoughts he found
Jim thinking were the same thoughts he thought himself.
The Raven got hotter and closer. “Have you ever thought you could fulfill
someone, sometimes?”
…
“Talking to you fulfills me,” The Raven said. “You see how easily we are
fulfilled?”
Brandy touched the peak of his tintic house with his baby finger. “I wish I could
fulfill my Dad that simple easy.”
“Isn't a son a fulfillment?”
“My Dad hates boys with yellow hair.”
Shannon clenched his fist, his knuckles like stones in the wilderness. “I don't see
anything queer about yellow hair.” His words outran his breath.
…Jim gulped a huge breath. “My Dad thinks boys with yellow hair have gotta
be queers.”
The Raven went whiter than normal. The heat laid white hands on his shoulder
blades, prickling his skin beneath his black shirt. This boy could blast the hills and
houses of Stickford with the things he learned today.
…
“Do you feel fulfilled if you do sex?”
Shannon stared after the flock of wild birds in those eyes the blue of clear,
expectant sky beyond a storm. “We better not talk about sex.”
“How come? You're my teacher. Don't teachers get to talk sex?”
Shannon staggered. The heat licked his ribs. “Making love makes you fulfilled,
yes. Love fulfills you. Love makes you really alive.”
“Am I really alive?”
“Of course, you're alive!”
“I dunno.” Jim snuggled himself. “I never done sex—not even, you know, by
myself.”
Shannon struggled, his inscape aflame. “A real hard turn-on, hey?” He used a
boy's language to tease this boy.
“Don't make fun of me! I'm scared!”
“Are you scared of sex?”
…
“I'm scared of just that word sometimes.”
“Do other boys see that you're afraid of sex?”
Jim squeezed his eyes closed. That question was a clockspring wind about to
explode in the quietus of a cyclone…
Still learning what it means to be gay, Jim shelters his secret. “If other boys found out Jim wrote poems
they would really label him queer.” Dueweke knowingly repeats the phrase “other boys”, aware of attraction to
an Other that is also Self. “Well, Jim guessed writing poems did seem strange to other boys. But other boys
meant that Jim had those feelings for boys that only girls are supposed to have…Once other boys Scotchtaped a
sign to Jim's back: I Suck Dicks and I'm Proud. Jim knew what other boys meant by dicks.”
The school's Dr. Suzanne Bejin tries to soothe Jim's anxiety. The boy's disjointed rambling leads her to
abandon birds-and-bees generalities; delicately, she explains homosexuality to him. A hilarious climax (not
included here) to the following scene holds an ironic lesson about the “liberal” response to youths who admit
sexual desire for adults.
“Are other boys calling you homosexual, Jim?”
“Other boys gimme those erections.”
“An erection is a natural reaction—”
“My erections are natural reactions for me when I see other boys. Down in the
locker room. Or sometimes. With no clothes on.”
“Embarrassment may cause an erection in a boy your age—”
“Or sometimes even when I see other boys at all. When I just see em.
Sometimes I get erections even then. And I had a thing with another boy at summer
camp—”
The doctor dint know what to say. “What do you know about homosexuality,
Jim?”
“I don't even know about, you know, sex! I just know how I feel.”
“And you feel sexually attracted to other boys?”
“I feel good when I'm close to other boys.”
“Boys may experience sexual arousal just by looking, or even from their
thoughts.”
“You mean like during my dream?”
“A boy may become aroused by his dreams. A boy may experience a nocturnal
emission, or a wet dream, at night.”
“I dream mostly in the mornings.”
Suzanne, it turns out, will announce herself as Shannon's fiance. The interrelated maze of characters
grows more complex as the novel progresses.
As Dueweke builds suspense toward a resolution of Jim's frustrated libido, the reader may wish that
someone other than Shannon could have the privilege of satisfying the boy. Shannon can be pompous,
impulsive, and (with his interest in surly Donald) fickle. He is not always likeable.
Jim's modest brilliance is more captivating. In class, he shyly explicates a line from Whitman, “How you
settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,” intuitively grasping the erotic meaning that
escaped the notice of his peers.
Fitting that Jim should carry a copy of Leaves of Grass, since Dueweke invokes Whitman with his vital,
organic images. In a crucial moment late in the novel, the author symbolizes awakening joy with a catalogue of
childhood memories: “Every moment Jim had lived to love, the yellow sun, the blue sky, awoke and was a
dawn in him. He sneezed on chalkdust, burst bubbles, kicked his feet in October leaves…he daydreamed, he
pretended, he imagined he could fly, he stood still and was a tree amid the woods…”
Elsewhere Dueweke is less expansive, using childish simplicity and repetition worthy of Gertrude Stein,
as when he describes the familiar unease of a gay teenager in the locker room: “Jim watched other boys too
long. And nude boys notice how long a boy who is not nude looks at nude boys.”
Comparisons aside, Dueweke's style is distinctly his own—both straightforward and bent, lyrical but
comic. His is a natural, idealizing voice that would spin an innocent tale of Norman Rockwell boys with
freckles. But also a lustful voice that would place the same pink-cheeked adolescents into a circle-jerk, creating
a scene no less evocative of Americana.
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