I remember crying because of films, when I was young—Old Yeller, The Boy Who Talked to Badgers, The Yearling (I was a sucker for movies about animals). I was upset about Ben dying in Star Wars. But I don’t recall any novels that had any great emotional impact on me until A Separate Peace. And that one devastated me.
I think it was 1982, when I was a junior in high school. I was sitting in first period Latin class, bored and not particularly following the lesson (I flunked the class), so I started flipping through my English Literature textbook. I feel bad for kids who are forced to read A Separate Peace as an English assignment, because few novels survive that stigma. Who falls in love with something that they’ve been forced to read and write essays about? (Okay, I still love Lord of the Flies, despite this, but that’s the exception—not the rule.) I started reading and was immediately hooked.
And when I say hooked, I mean hooked. I couldn’t put it down. I kept reading through every single class I had that day. In art class, my teacher had to order me to close the book and concentrate on the assignment. Most teachers either didn’t notice me reading under the desk, or chose to ignore it. I continued reading on the bus ride home and then immediately ran up to my bedroom and finished the book. I’ve never read a novel of that length that quickly, before or since.
I was bawling by the end of the book. The ending destroyed me. I couldn’t fathom how Gene could still go on. What was wrong with him? I didn’t even want to leave my room to eat dinner. I just wanted to lay there in the dark and cry.
So I did the only thing I could think of to do: I picked the book up and began reading again from the beginning, where everything was peaceful and idyllic once more.
Why did A Separate Peace affect me so deeply? I’m still trying to figure that out. It’s definitely a good book. I re-read it again this week and still loved it, though the ending is merely sad now. I’ve read it too many times in the intervening years to be affected by it the same way I was thirty years ago. Now, I see it through the eyes of not only an adult, but also a writer. I can see that the prose is very good, if not particularly poetic. The story structure holds together well. And there is symbolism that flew over my head as a teenager. My biggest criticism would be that Leper’s descent into madness doesn’t feel at all realistic to me now. I’ve learned a bit more about mental illness in my adult life, and the way John Knowles portrayed it just didn’t feel right. But that’s a minor criticism. The characters are just as vividly painted as I remember them. I still fell in love with Finny.
And that’s a big part of it, of course. I fell in love with Finny. To me, even a couple years before I’d come to terms with my own homosexuality, A Separate Peace felt like a gay novel. I know the author, John Knowles, never intended that. It’s a novel about two teenage boys who have such an intense, close bond between them that they feel like extensions of each other. Gene’s struggle is, in a way, a battle with his own personal demons, manifested in Phineas. When Finny is absent, there is a scene in which Gene dresses in Finny’s clothes and in his mind transforms into Phineas for a short time, and this bond between them is referred to several times in the novel. But to me, that bond felt like the bond between two boys who were in love with each other, even if they never acted on it. Several times, the narrator (Gene) describes Finny’s handsome features and physical perfection in terms that might make a teenager uncomfortable these days, now that everyone suspects homo-eroticism in same-sex relationships. Things were different in the 1940s, of course. But even in the 1980s, I recall a friend’s father referring to the film Brian’s Song derogatorily as a “romance between a black guy and a white guy.” (This totally killed my friend’s interest in a film that he’d previously enjoyed watching several times.)
The day Gene and Finny spend together on the beach, sleeping side by side on the dunes, with Finny doting on Gene the whole time… that felt really romantic.
This is perhaps a common problem for gay teens—seeing homo-erotic overtones in books and films, where straight teens see just friendship. But then, of course, this disconnect often happens in their real lives. Why should fiction be any different?
So the book that made me cry was, in the final analysis, not really the book I was reading, but the book that was taking place in my heart and mind. And some of that passion now seems lacking, when I go back to re-read it. But it’s still a great book. And perhaps even a straight guy might cry reading it.