The new story collection Let Me See It should show more

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  • Northwestern University Press
James Magruder's new story collection, Let Me See It, covers most of the key points of the coming-of-age of gay men in the 1970s and '80s as experienced by first cousins Tom Amelio and Elliott Biddler. There are the charged childhood friendships, adolescent awkwardnesses, painful college crushes on straight or closeted boys, romances with older men, the difficulties of negotiating the attentions of straight women and the prejudices of family members, and, finally, the Plague.

Of the two, Elliott is the clown who jumps (literally) into his lovers' beds. Tom is more cautious and determined to be a good boy and follow the rules. They are familiar types. Reading it, you will probably enjoy Elliott's company more, but fear you're actually like Tom.

Magruder's writing is a familiar type too. These are the careful, dignified sorts of short stories that come out of fiction writing workshops. (Magruder teaches fiction at the University of Baltimore.) Everything has been carefully placed, the juxtapositions have been carefully considered, the endings are carefully ambiguous. There are occasional sharp observations and lovely turns of phrase. (This from Elliott after sneaking outside to make out with his college boyfriend during a maternal visit: "Once inside, I picked the scurf of Patrick's dried semen from the hair on my knuckles and flicked it to the center of the table, daring her to interpret this advanced clue of who I was now.")

But only about half of these stories actually come to life. This happens when Magruder allows Tom and Elliott to interact and be honest with each other, or with another character, instead of musing on what they should or should not have done with their lives. He's also quite funny on the subject of Americans living in Paris and the trials of the junior year abroad (and also what it means for a boy to go to France), though I cannot quite forgive him for cutting away from what promises to be an all-out brawl between Elliott and his roommate at their host family's dinner table.

Maybe, in the end, that's not such a bad ratio. Consider the number of writing workshops in this country, the number of painfully self-conscious stories getting composed. Any bit of life that can get past the gatekeepers is worth savoring.

James Magruder will be reading from Let Me See It on Thursday, July 24, at 7:30 PM at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark, 773-769-9299, womenandchildrenfirst.com.

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.

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