Marc reviews Owen Keehnen’s Young Digby Swank. (The book was published by Wilde City Press on September 11th, 2013, 277 pgs).
This book was provided free of charge for an honest review by the author and Wilde City Press.
Why I read this book: To be honest, I had never heard about this book when the author approached us for a possible review. It sounded interesting and as a catholic and gay man, the topic seemed very intriguing to me. I didn’t know what to expect and it took me a while to actually start the book, but I am so glad I finally did. This is a book unlike any other I read, there is humor and depth. Unique characters that come to life on page and all the every-day hypocrisies the book uncovers in a humorous way made me think and will likely stick with me for a long time.
Meet Young Digby Swank…a gay boy in a very Catholic world. This is his story—from his miraculous birth, his troubled childhood and his quest for popularity, all the way to his dreams of becoming Pope and/or a beauty queen. Follow Digby through Cub Scouts, through his stint as an altar boy, a prankster, an outcast, a cross dresser, a vengeance seeker, a hell-bound sinner, and more. But it’s not just Digby you’ll meet on this journey! Say hello to Digby’s overbearing relatives, a few bullying nuns, some eccentric neighbors, and oh, let’s not forget the parish gossips of Running Falls, the small blue collar town in which Digby lives.
Yes, meet Digby Swank. A boy searching for love, belonging… and maybe even a halo. Surely those devil horns will help keep it propped up!
Cover: The cover is nice, makes me smile and gives a personal touch. Though I must admit it didn’t draw me in directly. I love how the tag line connects the drawings of symbols for heaven and hell 😉
Title: The title doesn’t really tell me anything. I see so many releases and titles that I would have wished for the title to hook me more.
Story: So you saw the title and now you wonder: Who is Digby Swank???
Well, after reading this book I would say Digby Swank is a borderline sociopath with strong narcissistic tendencies. In other words, a typical kid, growing up. Though like every kid, he is unique in his own way. His uniqueness shines as bright as the light of a lighthouse, illuminating the dark. Instead of celebrating it though, in the Catholic culture he grows up with any deviation from the norm is seen as bad and the fire of his spirit is quickly dowsed.
It is a very sad think to watch as people try to mold him into something that is socially acceptable and he himself tries so hard to be different from how he is, so as not to be an embarrassment and hurt his parents. In the process, however, he comes off as awkward and weird and instead of fitting in is barely tolerated. His parents and his family do love him (well, part of his family at least) in their own way, but as is mentioned in the book, the people who love you and want to protect you, can hurt you the worst. They don’t see who he truly is and instead of trying to understand him better and giving him the support he needs to be true to himself, they believe the best thing to protect him is to help him hide who he is in his heart.
Thankfully at different parts of his growing up, there are people who make his life a little bit more bearable. Though they are never a constant presence in his life and he is mostly lonely and misunderstood.
I know this sounds kind of dark and moody, but there is a lot of humor in this book and it is a wonderful coming of age story.
Digby is very smart, even if not book smart, and his observations about other people are spot-on and highlight the absurdity and hypocrisy of much that is said and done. At times it was laugh-out-loud funny and even though my heart often broke for Digby, because his childhood is such a trial for him, I always had a smile on my face.
When something strikes me as funny or especially well-written, I often highlight it on my kindle and I did that A LOT, while reading this book. However, this was not a book that I wasn’t able to lay down, because it had to be devoured in one sitting. It is long and the different chapters can easily be read on their own. They are mostly chronologically and should be read as such, but each chapter has a theme and can be appreciated on it’s own merit. For me it worked terrifically as bedside reading material and I read it night for night, chapter for chapter, thinking about all the people in my catholic village and my own family.
My mother is catholic and my father agnostic and we never had a lot of religion in the house. I was always very interested in religion, though, and helped out as altar boy (though mass was much too early for my parents). However, in my strongly conservative and almost entirely catholic village, the mandatory catholic religion class was starkly different from what Digby experiences in his catholic school. We were taught as one of the first things to not take the bible verbatim. Our teacher explained to us that the bible has to be seen in the context of its time. People were mostly illiterate and the stories were written in a way that would seem exciting and have easily understandable truths and lessons within. People had to be able to remember the stories and want to remember them. So the thinks about the bible that seem hard to believe like Jesus walking on water and Moses parting the red sea might just mean that Jesus was able to swim, which was very uncommon at the time and Moses was able to navigate the swamps left when the Red Sea departed (a natural phenomenon), because he lived in the desert and was traveling on foot instead of large, heavy, Egyptian wagons. The bible is a very important construct of its time and still has a lot of importance, today. In fact many laws that are still used to safeguard various countries were directly inspired by the ten commandments. But as were were taught that the humans who wrote it, while they may have been inspired by god, were still part of their time and culture and human, thus fallibly. The bible is not absolute truth, cannot be taken word-for-word into the modern times (as we for example thankfully no longer consider slaves as part of someone’s belonging and thus our current bibles do no longer state that desiring our neighbor’s slaves is a sin). While I was in the US, living in the bible belt and going to a religious private school, acceptance of all faiths was actively taught. It was an Episcopalian School and it accepted me (still catholic) as part of their community, part of their masses. The minister was super nice and prayed for me, when I was worried about family members and when they died. While I was their, the Episcopalian Church also ordained it’s first gay minister, our Biology teacher was a strong believer in both god and the evolutionary theory and there were teachers and students of different color, different faiths and different sexual orientation in the school.
So, the way Catholicism and Religion is taught and lived is not the same everywhere and the way I was taught and believe actually helped me to see the truth in Digby’s observations and the absurdity that can so often be found in religion. Because even if I never experienced them, myself, I know the kind of school’s described in the book exists. And I have personally experienced a lot of the religious and general hypocrisy that Digby recognizes. i have and am also guilty of some of it. The fact how easily some people judge others though, while believing themselves holier than thou, even as they daily ‘sin’ in the way they speak, act, treat others and in their judgement of others is still mind boggling to me. I am gay, but I never once considered that god would love me less for it.I will never understand the energy some people put into identifying others as sinners instead of helping others as they are able to to make the world a better place. In face of war, diseases, misery, dwindling resources… stopping consenting adults from loving each other should never be anyone’s priority.
I love books that make me think and this one is a definite must-read! I can strongly recommend it, even if some readers might need to get out of their comfort zone to read something other than a romance. You will not regret it!
I guess I’ve always been a writer. Mostly because that was just the easiest way for me to communicate. As a kid I remember leaving notes whenever I had something difficult to express. I’d run into a room, leave a note, and then run away. There’s a line in Young Digby Swank that goes something like, “It was so much easier for Digby to be honest when he wasn’t in the room.” That’s me completely. So, in some ways, I kind of had to write to survive. That hasn’t changed much since I was five or six.
Young Digby Swank is a humorous novel about a gay kid growing up Catholic and coming of age in a small blue collar town and how, after numerous missteps, he eventually learns to become comfortable in his own skin. For most gay kids, like Digby, that journey to acceptance is a heroic one, an epic of torment both internal and external. The book is probably 20% autobiographical, but writing it prompted me to reflect upon my own life as a gay kid/outsider and exorcise some of those childhood and adolescent demons through humor.
Laughter is the best tool I know for survival. The ability to see the humor in things has got me through so much – acne, boyfriends, breakups, Advanced Algebra, sobriety, and even the AIDS crisis. I never could have/would have endured any of it without laughter. Humor allows you to weather those storms without becoming bitter. Otherwise, I have no idea how people survive.
Making Young Digby Swank funny was extremely liberating when it came to saying what I wanted the book to say. Early on in the writing, it became apparent to me who the real crazies were in that fictional environment, and it sure wasn’t Digby. However, so often when you are a kid you have no perspective on those things.
The church, for example, can be terribly wounding. Catholicism is so toxic to the self-esteem of a gay kid. Many of the things I use in the book actually came out of the mouths of priests, nuns, and even a lesser bishop. Hypocrisy should be a sacrament! I was actually taught and told some version of many of these things in school. I was made to stand in the garbage “along with the rest of the trash.” I had hell described in great detail and was told I would go there if I didn’t keep a tidy desk or had my hair touch my collar. Looking back, much of it is sick and borderline insane, but also hilarious. Exposing the lunacy of many Catholic Church and Catholic school teachings, along with much of the dogma, was really fun because it was so easy to see the absurdity of it all. And having the church as the butt of so many jokes felt wonderfully karmic. To date, no lightning bolts have struck me down.
The church gets a good amount of ribbing, but plenty of other places, institutions, and ways of life get their due as well – like the blue collar world, gender roles, Cub Scouts, small town life, etc. However, my favorite source of humor isn’t those big groupings, but the quirks and behavior of the individual. Every character in this book was really a joy to make funny in their own unique way. I love distorting people until they become characters in a fun house mirror. I guess you could call it a neo-Dickensian sort of thing. Ironically, the people with no sense of humor are the funniest of all to me. I find self-seriousness hilarious, so in our culture I never run out of material.
Throwing all traces of Catholic humility aside, I must say that I am so happy with the way this novel turned out. Upon finishing Young Digby Swank, several people have remarked that in addition to finding it very funny, they really connected to the feeling of being an outsider and the pressure to belong. I love that this book is helping folks recognize the humor and situational absurdity in all that. If I can get folks to have a good snicker over the church or gender roles or small town values or the crazed need to fit in, I’m thrilled.
I was always different, but writing Young Digby Swank confirmed, for me, the benefits of being unique and how the quest for conformity hurts everyone. Basically, if your goal is to be like everyone else, you are setting the bar awfully low. Hopefully readers of my novel will see the value of embracing their individuality and, ideally, have a few chortles along the way.
A big thanks to Rainbow Gold Reviews for the chance to talk a little about my new book. Much appreciated.
Writer and historian Owen Keehnen has had his fiction, essays, erotica, reviews, columns and interviews appear in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. He is the author of the humorous gay novel Young Digby Swank, the gay novel The Sand Bar and the horror novel Doorway Unto Darkness. Keehnen has also written the M/M romances The Dog Trainer and Summertime 1962 as well as the upcoming titles Thunder Snow and December 1903: The Iroquois Fire. He is the author of The LGBT Book of Days. With Tracy Baim, he has co-authored Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow, Jim Flint: The Boy From Peoria, and Vernita Gray: From Woodstock to the White House. Over 100 of his interviews with various LGBT authors and activists from the 1990s have been collected in the book We’re Here, We’re Queer. He co-edited Nothing Personal: Chronicles of Chicago’s LGBTQ Community 1977–1997, was a contributor to Gay Press, Gay Power and wrote ten biographical essays for the coffee table history book Out and Proud in Chicago. Keehnen was on the founding committee and executive board of The Legacy Project and is currently a contributing biographer for the LGBT history-education-arts program focused on pride, acceptance, and bringing proper recognition to the courageous lives and contributions in LGBT history. He was the author of the Starz books, a four-volume series of interviews with gay porn stars. He has had two queer monologues adapted for the stage and served as co-editor of the Windy City Times Pride Literary Supplement for several years, was a co-founder of the horror film website RacksAndRazors.com. He also has written several erotic novels under the name Ewan Creed. He lives in Chicago with his partner, Carl, and his two ridiculously spoiled dogs, Flannery and Fitzgerald. He was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2011.
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