Richard Lahrem--rhymes with harem--is a pretty typical high-school teenager in 1970s Chicago suburbia. The only child of divorced parents, he lives with his mother and her new husband Carl, a balding fist of a meat-and-potatoes man whose teenaged daughter, Carla, also lives with them. She's become the lust interest of Richard's former best friend, Steve. Together, they used to root through Carl's Playboy stash in the basement, to which Richard's mother willingly turns a blind eye; now, Steve and Carla use the basement for stoned trysts. Richard seeks solace in the records he buys at the Wax Trax record store, until he chances upon a school extracurricular activity in which he succeeds, bringing him confidence and, eventually, sexual experience.
Richard Lahrem is not, however, a typical high-school teenager, as witnessed in any number of '70s-set coming-of-age tales of suburban anomie. Richard is painfully aware of the economic and romantic compromise his mother made when marrying Carl. He's fascinated and repulsed by Carla's sexual inhibitions. The school team he joins is the speech club, doing a dramatic interpretation of The Boys in the Band. The records he buys are original soundtracks to Broadway musicals, primed by a television broadcast of the Tony Awards. And his sexual awakening comes in the arms and bed of another high school's drama coach, Mr. Edward Bolang.
That's right: Richard is in the process of understanding that he is gay. Otherwise, Sugarless is just like a John Hughes movie--if any of them made room for homosexuality.
That shouldn't be taken as a knock, because what makes Sugarless, the first novel from Baltimore-based playwright and Swarthmore College assistant professor of theater, James Magruder, so effective and engaging are its subtle variations on such a familiar form. Sugarless is a teen sex comedy--in fact, the themes and situations it chronicles perfectly suited for young-adult fiction (again, not a knock)--only not one rooted in a purely heterosexual world.
And that subtle shift introduces a refreshingly vibrant narrative world. Richard has to contend with a stepfather who is as sharp as a butterknife and less cultured than yogurt, a nearly wild-child stepsister, and his own emerging sexual urges, plus his father's announcement to remarry and his mother's religious awakening. She turns to Jesus to soothe her omnipresent domestic frustrations and disappointments, creating a home environment where an already self-ostracized teen feels like a stranger. Some of the novel's most comically inspired and heartbreaking moments come via Richard's encounters with the well-scrubbed permanent smiles of born-again Jesus people.
Holding everything together is Magruder's winning narrative economy. He soaks his story in period details--he's got a fabulous ear for teenage dialog and a blithe gift for making every economic description of '70s décor and color schemes feel like a Frank Stella painting, his adjectives and metaphors darting out into unexpected directions--and he's got a wicked sense of humor that he never steps on by overwriting. Even better, Magruder climbs inside all his characters and animates them with flickers of flesh and blood foibles, from the priceless Patty Puller, the troll-woman who massages Richard's mother into the church, to Carla, who evolves from Richard's mortal enemy to empathetic companion to something else.
Magruder's best feat here, though, is the way he steers these characters through decisions reactionary and ill-fated without ever passing judgment on them. Richard occasionally passes judgment on people, but it's the impudent, churlish action of a teenage boy who is rapidly loosing his place in a house that no longer feels like home, if it ever did. And in that humanity, he makes lanky, awkward Richard Lahrem--Stephen Sondheim fan, wearer of bikini underwear with brightly colored piping, speech club team member--into an accessibly familiar American teenager, trapped between being his parent's son and being himself.