Posted on June 15, 2011 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
Here be spoilers.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a very good book, very good book.
Let's just get that out of the way early so any criticism I present will seem paltry in comparison. The novel is smartly written and deals sensitively with a topic that's probably more of an issue with image-conscious teens than adults — having an openly gay best friend.
As the curious title might imply, the story is told by two boys, both named Will Grayson, who live in the Chicago area. The first Will Grayson (let's call him WIll #1) is a likable but timid guy who always tries to do the right thing but can quickly lapse into self-recrimination whenever it brings unwanted attention to himself. His timidity probably isn't helped by the fact that his best friend is a giant of a young man, ironically called "Tiny," who's not only a football star but is unabashedly gay with loud moments of great drama. Will #1's relationship with Tiny goes all the way back to elementary school. Even in those early days, Tiny possessed a level of courage and self-confidence that produces from Will #1 envy, admiration and embarrassment. Will #1's hypocrisy often makes life with Tiny a challenge.
Will #2 is an inner-city kid who has struggles of his own. He tries to manage both his depression and his homosexuality by keeping himself isolated from most other people. His difficulty with other people has prompted Will #2 to construct an elaborate online relationship with an unseen boy named Isaac. Can you see trouble a-brewing here? It turns out that "Isaac" is the creation of a female classmate who is angered by Will #2's disinterest in her and has made it her personal quest to out him. Will #2 discovers the deception when he agrees to finally meet "Isaac" and finds himself standing in the doorway of a porn shop in a seedy Chicago neighborhood. This is where he encounters — purely by chance — the other Will Grayson. Will #2 confides his humiliation to the stranger with the same name who, being an inherently empathetic person, responds kindly. It is through Will #1 that Will #2 meets Tiny, whose undying sense of romance manages to pull the boy out of his dark funk and experience affection with a real person.
The rest of the novel deals with the intertwined relationships between these characters, set against the backdrop of an autobiographical play Tiny is producing for his high school. The play contains caricatures of many of his friends, including both Wills, which is both revealing and uncomfortable for all parties.
The novel is refreshing in that it avoids the usual coming-of-age or tortured-soul themes that often mark novels on this topic. Although Tiny's flamboyant behavior is often a source of embarrassment to his friends, they never persecute him for it. Likewise, when Will #2 begins to come out to others, he finds most of his friends and his mother to be very supportive. This may not be a reality enjoyed by many American gay youth, but it is a happy possibility that may give some hope.
The book is written in first person with alternating chapters written by the respective Wills. Authors John Green and David Levithan do a good job of giving both boy a separate and distinctive voice, mainly because each wrote a Will independently of the other. If there was one off-putting thing about this technique, it was Will #2's voice which is written almost entirely in "cyber speak." While it is true that a disturbing number of teenagers believe that "what" is spelled without an "h" and that capital letters don't exist at all, reading ten chapters of this proved irksome. I kept wanting to send Will #2 to remedial English class.
This being said, the authors were spot-on in their characterizations of modern teens. Even the cruel deception that Will #2's classmate perpetrates could be lifted right off the front page of a modern newspaper (...uh, make that the homepage of a news websites.) One thing that did surprise me (I won't use the word troubled here), was the virtual lack of any relationship between the two Wills. Once they have their chance encounter in the porn shop, and a touching moment of spontaneous bonding on the street, the two characters never see each other again until the last pages of the book. The boys acknowledge the weirdness of having the same name and being drawn through circumstances to a place neither of them would normally go, but then the happenstance seems to be forgotten. I point this out because it seems almost as though the book is miss-titled. By the time the Wills meet, the book is really about Tiny.
Still, all things considered, Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a mesmerizing novel that I had a hard time putting down. It's worthy of all the kudos its received from other critics and I personally look forward to other titles from these authors.