Stray CityStray City by Chelsey Johnson
My rating: 4/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

The naked man body still made me bashful. You get used to seeing naked women all your life, but a man’s floppy cluster looks so exposed and hapless.

this is a sweet, breezy reversal of the “gay for you” trope, in which andrea morales, an established lesbian who has sacrificed her college education and severed all contact with her homophobic parents in order to live freely and openly, hooks up with a dude, gets pregnant, and decides, like madonna, she’s keeping her baby (but not the dude), no matter what papa (in this case, the lesbian mafia) thinks of her life choices.

it’s set in portland in the 90’s, and even though andrea is twenty-four at the start, this is still a coming-of-age novel, because that whole DIY punk zine noise bike-riding vegetarian anti-establishment art collective scene is one that supports the extension of adolescence, and andrea’s experience with ryan is really just one of those “testing the sexual waters” experiments when anything is possible and nothing has consequences. except, of course, this time.

it’s a sweet book, yes, but it’s also smart, and it doesn’t fall into easy oppositions or hesitate to point out the hypocrisy of a community priding itself on inclusion and permissiveness while despising Chasing Amy and ani difranco and anne heche and others who have crossed over into unsuitable bedfellow territory, when andrea’s chosen family is just as bewildered and scornful of her and ryan as her biological family was of her and women and her hard-won independence and sense of self is uprooted all over again.

I realized I had traded one small town for another.

I thought about some of the most dogmatic anarchist punks I’d known, whose parents turned out to be bankers and oilmen. I thought of the class-discussion radicalism police who leaped to call out everyone else on their shit, desperate to cover their own. How even I had thrown myself deeper into the Lesbian Mafia as soon as I started sleeping with Ryan. It seemed in our urgency to redefine ourselves against the norm, we’d formed a church of our own, as doctrinaire as any, and we too abhorred a heretic.

the protectiveness makes sense – this begins in 1998, with the brandon teena tragedy in the community’s rearview (and in andrea’s home state of nebraska), and the murder of matthew shepard also occurs during the course of this story, so there’s a lot of high-profile hate to process, and many of the characters found acceptance in this new queer “family” after being rejected by their parents, and by extension, the straight community, and any seeming “relapse” by a member is unsettling and dangerous. inclusiveness has its boundaries, and straight dudes, no matter how feminist and undouchey, are well beyond its borders.

We all had a strong sense that lesbian drama was our drama, and maintained a protective shield from curious outsiders. For men, lesbian was a porn category.

i have no personal connection to portland in the 90’s, but i trust the book’s blurbs that it captures the time and place exceptionally well. it definitely does resonate with that time in life, all rootlessness and possibility and revelations and figuring out the details and desires of the self and of relationships while everything is soft and blurry with evolving and becoming:

Maybe Flynn at thirty was still becoming, I realized. Maybe the Flynn I loved was on the way out. Or maybe the Flynn I loved hadn’t been around for some time now. It was easy to mistake proximity for closeness.

really, a very strong and surprising debut and i look forward to whatever she does next.

read my reviews on goodreads

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