LONE STARS by Justin Deabler (St. Martin's, 304 pp., $27.99)
Pre-pandemic, Houston's Pride festivals and parades drew an estimated 700,000 attendees. All that support for the Texas city's LGBTQ+ community is something the alienated gay teen at the center of Justin Deabler's debut novel could never imagine.
In "Lone Stars," Julian Warner is in high school in the late '90s when the only openly gay student he knows is sexually assaulted and is never seen again. That attack takes place a year after University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was tortured and killed because of his sexual orientation.
You may know Deabler from season 8 of the MTV reality show "The Real World," which was set in Hawaii in 1998. In fan sites devoted to the show he's described as a "misunderstood intellectual type," much like the lead character in "Lone Stars." In his present-day real world, Deabler is general counsel for the Queens Public Library. He and his husband live in Brooklyn with their son.
"Lone Stars" is a multigenerational story, told with sincerity, heart and a profound understanding of what it means to grow up in a community where being homosexual is considered perverse. It's also a novel about secrets, and not just those pertaining to sexual identity. Julian's grandmother, whom we meet early in the novel, hides her Mexican heritage, dyeing her dark hair blonde and disparaging the Mexicans who work for her husband's cattle business. She pressures her daughter Lacy, Julian's mother, to downplay her intelligence and focus on finding a husband. Julian's father, Aaron, tries to hide his multiple affairs.
All of this plays out against the drumbeat of real events: the 1950s anti-immigration border raids, the Vietnam War, gay rights struggles and 2008's financial crisis. The novel's shining moments have less to do with current events and more to do with the characters breaking away from suffocating relationships and social norms. Julian's mother walks away from a bad marriage and becomes an advocate for gay teens. She's Julian's biggest champion. Julian flees conservative Texas and heads to Harvard.
His journey into adulthood and self-acceptance is marked by sad and horrible moments. Worried that his young son isn't manly enough, Aaron takes Julian to Home Depot and tells him "You can learn a lot from guys at Home Depot." When Julian asks what he can learn, Aaron tells him: "Like how to be a guy." Julian ends up having an anxiety attack in the plumbing aisle when he sees a customer covered with tattoos.
The man reminds Julian of a homophobe who roughed him up and showered him with derogatory slurs after spotting the boy trying on bridal veils at a Renaissance fair. Childhood teaches Julian there's a lot of hate in the world, but at Harvard he learns that places exist where he can be his true self.
Deabler doesn't break any literary barriers with "Lone Stars" or expose any new realizations about what it means to be gay. He tells a life-affirming story about how people of all orientations can inspire one another to live their best life. It's the kind of story we need right now.