Rarely have I read a coming of age story as compelling as Sugarless: A Novel. Better known as a playwright and translator, Magruder’s most recent offering is his first novel. Sugarless never feels contrived. It carries all the angst of Catcher in the Rye without feeling forced. I expect it to win him a Lambda Literary Award.
Rick is a fifteen-year-old growing up in the late 1970s. His mother has married an educated but volatile man. With the marriage came a stoner stepsister, who becomes his nemesis and accomplice.
The household is filled with drama, causing Rick to take comfort in his music and caring for his baby stepsister. Unlike the protagonists in most gay coming of age novels, Rick has no problems with his orientation. It is his newfound talent for speech that catalyzes many of the changes in his life.
Readers may find Rick’s first boyfriend uncomfortable. He meets a school teacher who introduces him to life beyond his Chicago housing development. While I am not advocating such relationships, it should be noted that Rick is certainly not an unwilling victim in this relationship.
One of the themes of Sugarless is what happens when a family becomes consumed with their newfound religion. To Magruder’s credit, he doesn’t focus on the anti-gay views of some denominations. Instead, he studies how such an obsession changes relationships within the family.
The musicals of the era play a significant role in the story. While musical queens are almost a gay stereotype, one doesn’t have that feeling here. Rick sees his collection of cast albums as his friends, his comfort when life becomes overwhelming. The works of Sondheim are especially significant, repeatedly being used as symbols of the changes taking place not only in one boy’s life but also in the country.
Magruder has created what I believe will become a classic of gay literature. The quality of the writing and the resonance of the story are phenomenal. I urge you to seek out Sugarless: A Novel.