I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip by John Donovan
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful
What is hardest to believe about I’ll Get There. It Better be Worth the Trip. by John Donovan is that the book takes place in the 1960s (and was written then, too!). I mean, honestly, where was this book all my life? As a teenager, I read a few gay-themed novels, like Dream Boy by Jim Grimsley (which I adore), but this book is the starting point for realistic gay fiction and, more specifically, the realistic gay YA novel. This is simultaneously a book that represents the end of idealized youths in YA fiction and also smacks its readers in the face with the presence of a typically denied or unrecognized type of person. Davy is thirteen, he’s in love with his dog, and his best friend and only role model is his grandmother, with whom he lives. When Davy’s grandmother passes away, he and his dog must be uprooted from their small suburban lakeside home, to New York City. Davy’s mom, the reader learns, is a delusional, self-absorbed alcoholic, the likes of which is not next seen until Augusten Burroughs’s memoir, Running With Scissors , almost forty years later. The father, like Burroughs’s, is a relatively weak, non-presence. Granted, he is “accepting” of Davy’s “predicament,” but only because he believes that all boys fool about a bit when they are growing up, and Davy is sure to soon grow out of it. Whether or not Davy will grow out of it, though, is left unsettled, as is the path his budding relationship with the school jock and loner (another odd but special combination of characteristics for one high school person) will take. Do they live happily ever after? Do they end up “making out” with all the girls, as they vow to do – or, possibly, does their relationship become even deeper and more intimate as the days go by?
4 – Characters extraordinarily well developed.
This section almost got a “3” rating, except that I had to pause and reflect on a lot of the other so-called YA books I have read recently and how those characters did not come close to the level of depth and interrelationships presented by Donovan here. Davy, the main character, is sad, lonely, and confused. He is also intelligent, witty, and incredibly loving. He understands his mother and father perfectly, despite how they try to dupe him into believing they may care more than they do, or be “cooler” than they are. His father’s new wife, too, comes across as genuine as she is meant to be, without it ever seeming phony (the use of which word made me laugh, as Davy did certainly have a certain Holden-esque feel to him, and Donovan’s prose was similar to Salinger’s in its sparseness and directness). Altschuler, Davy’s friend and crush, is complex from the start – there is something secretive about it, though it never seems sinister. Altschuler is handsome, clever, and great at sports – so why does he always place himself on the outside, in opposition when he could be in control? The reader finds out in due time and, quaintly (but without being too saccharine) it is another well-written character, Fred, who brings the two boys together and who, at the appropriate time, lets them go off on their own – to grow and experience life without his presence as a crutch. Fred is, believe it or not, Davy’s lovable dog, and one of the best written characters in any YA novel.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
As I mentioned above, the prose is reminiscent of the sparse and rather cold nature of the 1960s realists, post McCarthyism. There is a jaggedness to it, a pained emotionality. Donovan, like Salinger, has a bittersweet bite to his prose – something that draws the reader in, almost tenderly, but which also keeps him at a distance throughout, so that we bear witness to the story without feeling overwhelmed or coddled by it. The language was believable from a thirteen year old narrator’s perspective, as were the rather amusing and sometimes completely unpredictable and unconnected strings of thought. Davy relating his dream to the reader, as something uninteresting which can be skipped, for instance, is perfectly indicative of what a young, self-conscious boy might tell his friends or classmates – “well, I had this dream, it’s not important, I mean, I don’t even know why I’m telling it…” which, by nature of this lead in, indicates to everyone that the dream really is important, at least to Davy, and we should pay close attention despite how he tries to dismiss it. Similarly, the way in which Davy connects his “transgressions” with Altschuler to the loss of his dog is tragically comic – but wholly believable of a boy looking for answers to unanswerable questions.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
One of the most interesting and likely agitating pieces of this novel is its resolution, or lack thereof. The title of the book seems to allude to an eventual time or place the “there” where Davy (or Donovan – or all of us) will eventually reach. The ending of the book makes it perfectly clear that neither Davy nor us has gotten there, yet, but that the path is being laid and the direction is much clearer than it had been. When I read a novel like this, I cannot help but to think back to Whitman and Wilde, Shakespeare and Dickinson, the literary and poetic giants, masters of verse and prose, who had to disguise certain feelings, desires, or plain curiosities, in fear of persecution. Suddenly, it seems Donovan steps up to say “enough is enough” and grabs the readers hand to walk onward – where? That’s uncertain, but it’s somewhere and, ultimately, it may be the journey that is the most important part. There is self-discovery, here, and a hope for a social awakening. We see small glimpses of the larger world’s oppression, in Davy’s mother’s reaction and his father’s patronization. There are small glimmers of hope, though, unlike any in a novel previously – open embraces and acceptance, really, from characters like Stephanie, Davy’s step-mother, and in the candy shop owner, always eager to welcome the boys, to acknowledge their presence and treat them as guests – together (indeed, she’s even disconcerted when one appears without the other). All-in-all, this is one of the most impressive YA novels I have ever read, and certainly one of the top novels with a gay main character. That Donovan achieved both, together in one book, 40 years ago, is almost unfathomable, and my only hope is that there will be a great resurgence in this books popularity soon, because the world is really missing out.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult
Interest: GLBT, Coming-of-Age, Family, Death & Dying, Loss, Friendship, Coming Out, Alcoholism