A curious little book that ends up being more enjoyable than it should be, Choir Boy dances right up to the edge of being a tiresome freak show written by someone with lots of experience in freaks but not much in novel writing—but somehow manages to pull back from the precipice and be a good book. The premise is certainly innovative: Berry, a choirboy on the brink of adolescence, starts taking female hormones to keep his voice from changing. Tits, predictably, ensue. Thus begins Berry’s journey into a world of gender-questioning, aided and hampered by a motley collection of characters along the way.
One obvious question is: Why does Berry love choir so much that he’s willing to risk his balls for it? The answer appears to lie in the sanctuary it provides him—Berry is not particularly religious, but singing puts him closer to God, purifies him, makes him whole. Alternately stifled and ignored by his parents, he feels alone and apart in the world, never at home, never comfortable around his peers. His mother is absent and aloof, a working mom who goes to school, and his father is a skeevy lowlife who peddles a brand of mysticism mixed with financial advice that is better suited to a sketch comedy than a novel. Good old Dad, however, feels almost plausible placed next to the father of Berry’s friend-cum-love interest Lisa. Lisa’s dad is a deranged atheist harboring an obsession with the discredited “aquatherapy” school of child psychology. To rid Lisa of unwanted “reptile brain” impulses, he forces her to swim, fully clothed, for hours in a covered pool. Berry also makes friends with a transsexual named Maura, who encourages the recently gender-ambiguous boy to explore his girl side, largely by dolling him up and taking him to tranny bars. And for kicks, Maura starts dating the repressed Canon Moosehead, who is coming down from a mental crackup sparked by the choirboys spiking his punch with Viagra.
Just one of these characters would take some careful weaving into an ordinary novel. To have so many outlandish creatures crowded into one book risks pushing it into the farcical or worse, weirdness masquerading as interesting writing. But a surprising thing happens among all the unsurprising wacky hijinks—the book has a heart. When the action gets a little more realistic—such as when Berry’s mother, entranced with her new almost-daughter, finally starts paying attention to him—it is quietly effective. While Charlie Anders never quite develops her characters to the fullest, we find ourselves really caring about Berry, who manages to slip the bonds of his role as societal metaphor and become, at last, a real boy. Or girl. Or whichever.