Sheppard, Holden. Invisible Boys. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2019. RRP: $19.99, 344pp, ISBN: 9781925815566.
Invisible Boys by Holden Sheppard is an impressive and important new Western Australian novel, although it may shock some readers with its raw depictions of male sex, and ‘seedy images’ of illicit sex and being a ‘wardrobed homo’ (22). The shocking is juxtaposed with beautifully written expressions of love and calls for ‘their prayers’ (330). This book takes the reader on an emotional rollercoaster ride through the challenging topography of teenage anxiety, adult fear, taboos, joy, grief, friendships and love. It is a painfully beautiful warning of what happens if some non-conforming boys are marginalised, rendered invisible.
Holden Sheppard’s Invisible Boys is a Young Adult (YA) novel largely about three boys—Zeke, Charlie and Hammer, each a fragment of Sheppard’s own experience. He grew up in Geraldton, a conservative WA coastal town. The three boys start off believing they have a solid identity in a town ‘where everyone thinks they know you’ (Cover Material). Then adolescence happens. Instead of looking at girls, they seek out pictures of well-honed male bodies on football posters and ‘look for pictures of shirtless men online’ (40). They twist boys’ nipples, hoping not to be called-out as gay. As adolescents, they seek viable models of desire and sexuality in a social maze of bigoted, hypermasculine, homophobic adults and peers. The novel confronts the reader with the boys’ vulnerability, fear and desire, charting the inadequacy of first sexual experiences and search for identity and security.
Within Charlie, Zeke and Hammer’s school community there is a hierarchy. Hammer’s at the top of the pack—an ostensibly heterosexual macho footy player—with access to the most desirable girls. His terror of being homosexual makes him a bully. Charlie and Zeke don’t fit in Hammer’s world. Charlie plays grunge, paints his nails, desperately wants sex with men, and has a strict moral compass. Zeke is a caring, considerate, Italian, catholic nerd, but also an abomination according to his parents. With man boobs that Hammer says he could ‘titty fuck’, he’s an easy target for Hammer’s vindictiveness.
Invisible Boys provides a window on the complicated lives of these young gay men; their relationships and vulnerability. It wants readers to abandon their stereotypes and understand the idiosyncratic ways these boy’s lives are layered.
Invisible Boys does not overtly tell the story of family, friends, sporting coaches and teachers, living in the 1980s with the mounting fear of AIDS, when many homosexuals were seen as a threat to ‘us’ all. The novel does not describe the Grim Reaper bursting onto Australian screens, disrupting drive-time listening, confronting readers from the weekend papers and reinforcing homophobia. Rather, ‘his face looks as grim as the reaper’ (17) and transports many readers to the fear generating sexual politics of the 80s. For Zeek’s father this is amplified by Catholicism, and what it is ‘to be a man’; and so he screams ‘You’re a good boy. You’ve just been confused by this—faggot’ (289).
For Holden Sheppard, the book is about selfhood and home—the place and milieu of his youth—with a loving family and friends and knowing his place in this world, but also very aware how others are bullied and traumatised. At this year’s Margaret River Writers’ Festival, Sheppard said he was a ‘straight boy’ growing up, even when with puberty, hormones, and early crushes on boys he realised that he was gay. ‘I didn’t come out until I left when I was 19, almost 20’. He internalised the ‘reasons’ for the bullying and bullied himself. In the days of his youth he kept his real self invisible, but not now. Holden Sheppard is a happily married man, ‘a gym-junkie and punk-music loving, sensitive geek’ (Sheppard ‘Anywhere But Here’). Currently his Mohawk is green, but the colour changes regularly. Through his earlier novella Poster Boy and now Invisible Boys he offers readers insights into our responsibilities, by prompting us to ask: are we harming people when we say some things and don’t say others?
Arriving two years after the referendum for marriage equality, Invisible Boys is a timely novel. Sheppard expands our understanding of homosexuality from the point of view of adults to consider what it means to be a young guy who realises he is gay. This makes Invisible Boys a novel for us all. Self-confident gay men do not just arrive by magic in stable relationships and jobs. They start as boys growing up next door, learning about sex and sexuality and reasonably expecting, as we all do, to be accepted and nurtured.
My Australian literature university students greatly enjoyed reading and discussing this engaging new novel. I strongly recommend it.
Sheppard, Holden. ‘Anywhere But Here’. Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival, 3 May 2019, Voyager Estate, Margaret River.
Kathryn Trees teaches Australian literature and film at Murdoch University.