John Donovan’s [I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip] – The First YA Novel With Gay Content

My 1969 first edition copy of Donovan's _I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip_

My 1969 first edition copy of Donovan’s _I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip_

During the same political and cultural climate that produced the 1969 Stonewall Riots, John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip was published.  Although the riots were not causal of the books publication, it is no coincidence that both events were symptomatic of the tensions and pressures faced by the newly forming gay and lesbian community during the time.

It is widely acknowledged that Donovan’s text is the first novel written for a teenage or young adult readership that has gay content. According to Christine A. Jenkins in From Queer to Gay and Back Again: Young Adult Novels with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-1997, the book’s portrayal of homosexual content

was greeted with enthusiasm by some reviewers and readers; others deemed it inappropriate, even dangerous, to young readers’ developing sensibilities with the possibility that it “might arouse in the unconcerned unnecessary interest or alarm or both.” (299)

This was my first experience reading this landmark text within the genre of gay YA fiction. It was both illuminating and somewhat challenging to read this text, mostly because it accurately represents the attitudes towards queerness that were prevalent in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The bulk of the narrative focuses on thirteen year-old Davy, the protagonist, who is striving to adjust living with his mother in New York City after the death of his grandmother, the person who had been taking care of him since he was five. The latter part of the novel focuses on the competitive and turbulent friendship that Davy shares with Altschuler, a boy that Davy meets during his first day at his new school.

Something that surprised me when reading this novel is that its gay themes do not surface until the last fourth of the novel, when seemingly out of the blue, Davy and Altschuler share a spontaneous and slightly awkward kiss. As Davy puts it, “I guess I kiss Altschuler and he kisses me. It isn’t like that dumb kiss I gave Mary Lou Gerrity in Massachusetts before I left. I just happens. And when it stops we  sit up and turn away from each other” (Donovan 143).

This, however, is not the only homosexual experience that Davy and Altschuler share. During a sleepover that the two boys have about a week after their first kiss, they fool around once again, which leads Davy to question the moral nature of their encounters: “There’s nothing wrong with Altschuler and me, is there? I know it’s not like making out with a girl. It’s just something that happened. It’s not dirty, or anything like that. It’s all right, isn’t it?” (Donovan 154).

I don’t want to spoil the radical events that lead to the novel’s ending, but let’s just say that after a series of very unfortunate circumstances, Davy views his so-called deviant homosexual acts as the cause for all of his misfortune, which then pushes him to stress his desire to only be friends with Altschuler. This may seem problematic to some readers because on one hand, the character is clearly linking homosexuality as a deviant desire that causes pain and misfortune to other people because it is “unnatural.”

On the other hand, I think we must keep in mind that Altschuler not only approaches Davy’s views towards homosexuality as crazy, but he goes as far as to claim that “it didn’t feel wrong” and that he doesn’t feel guilty for what he did (Donovan 188). I personally thought that the ending of the novel was particularly ambiguous, for although Davy and Altschuler agree to simply remain friends and to avoid engaging in “queer” behavior with each other, I think the novel leaves the possibility of further sexual exploration slightly open. When Altschuler asks Davy what he wants to be like in the future, the following exchange takes place:

“Me,” I guess. “And guys like my grandmother. There was a great old girl. She was real stiff by nature, but she had respect for me, and I respected her. It was the same way with Fred, too. We respected each other.”

“I respected Wilkins,” Altschuler says.

“I guess we could respect each other,” I say. “Do you think so?”

“Sure,” Altschuler says. (Donovan 189)

Respect is an interesting choice of word in this final exchange between the two boys. It is made clear throughout the novel that Davy’s grandmother and his dog Fred were not only respected, but loved. Respect, in this case, not only involves esteem despite of differences, but it also entails admiration and a deep interest for the other’s well-being.

It is not made clear what respect means in the case of these two male characters. Are they discussing a respect of each other’s differences and desires? Does respect entail that Altschuler should not interfere with Davy’s views of homosexuality as unnatural? Does respect mean love, or does it mean a resistance of temptation? I guess the beauty of this novel is that it ultimately leaves the reader as the agent who must define what respect means in this exchange.

All in all, this was a quick and enjoyable read. Although it is in no way my favorite gay YA novel, I do think that it is worthy of celebration imply because it was the one novel that started it all. Sure, there are problems in terms of gay representation, especially when we approach the text with a modern lens. These problems only increase in voltage when we recall that the novel approaches homosexuality as not only devious, but as a phase (with the exception of Altschuler’s character). I guess what matters is that this novel ultimately allowed gay subjects to see themselves reflected within the genre, a genre in which gay subjects were absolutely invisible.

In sum, despite the speed bumps along the way, this literary trip was definitely worth it.

– – –

Sources:

My copy of the novel is the 1969 edition published by Harper & Row in New York. The version I quote is not the reissued 2010 – 40th Anniversary Edition published by Flux (which you can obtain by clicking here).

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