The boy who loved too much

An interview with author Mack Friedman about his debut novel, Setting the Lawn on Fire, a powerful coming-of-age tale about adolescent queer desire



Friedman’s luminous and thrilling first novel,
Setting the Lawn on Fire (University of
Wisconsin Press/Terrace), tells the story of Ivan, a
young gay Jewish boy from Milwaukee. In crisp poetic
language the novel follows Ivan through the 1980s on
his sexual and emotional odyssey from adolescence into
early adulthood. His adventures take him to many
places, from Wisconsin to Alaska, Philadelphia to Mexico, as
well as through many rites of passage: gymnastics, a
lonely stint in a salmon factory, art school,
hustling. The concise lambent quality of Friedman’s
prose is as sensual as the evocative descriptions of
Ivan’s erotic obsessions and encounters.

Edmund White gave
the novel a glowing review, and one can see
Friedman’s novel as brilliantly building on and
reinvigorating the tradition White established in A
Boy’s Own Story
: novels that map the
dizzying, messy, exuberant terrain of growing up queer
in a country where you have to learn along the way. Profoundly moving, Setting the Lawn on
manages that difficult balance of being both
incredibly sexy and incredibly sorrowful. What perhaps
thrilled me most about the novel is how beautifully it gets
at the sublime mystery of queer desire. Of his many
gifts, Friedman’s eye for conjuring those boys
who hook our hearts early on, and stay there, is
perhaps his most impressive. The cumulative effect is
profoundly moving: The reader remembers the ghosts of
all those boys from the past as well as the ghost of
the boy who was himself. The book will appeal both to
readers who want to make sense of the past and to those in
the tumultuous midst of where Ivan is.
caught up with Friedman in Pittsburgh to ask him about
the book.

I haven’t read a novel in a long time that gets so
beautifully, as yours does, at the mystery of
adolescent queer desire, its strange magic, and
how that follows us into adulthood. The novel dwells on
and goes deeply into that mystery through the main
character, Ivan. What is it about the space that
draws you as a writer? How did you access that as a writer?
A wise old leather daddy once told me something
very funny and true: “Every first novel is a
puberty novel,” he said. And he twirled his
handlebar mustache (silver, with a dash of nicotine gold),
and told me about his latest Viagra weekend with an
old flame and a new slave. And I’ll bet the
look in his eyes was the same one he had 60 years ago after
he jerked off with his best friend for the first time. You
could see this youthful vigor and amusement brimming
just inside, excitable and heroic and proud.
That’s the space that draws me. But I’m also
fascinated by the thin line between prostitution and
love, honor and desecration, consent and abuse, youth
and adulthood. How we grow up, why we get into rough
situations, and how we get out of them. The confusion, the
terror, and above all, the overwhelming desire, the
resilience. I think that glittering broken-down
alleyway of adolescence is every gay man’s past,
including my own. It was helpful to me as a writer to mine
my own back alleys. When I was a kid I kept a
meticulous journal of my jerk-off fantasies. I found
it a few years ago cleaning stuff from my parents’
house. This book is, in a sense, a compendium of my boyhood
desires, filtered by 10 years of adulthood and a damn
good editor named Raphael Kadushin.

One of the most exquisite aspects of the novel is Ivan
finding erotic images of boys in medical
textbooks. These boys hold a powerful sway over
Ivan, a fascination that he later uses in his art when
he goes to art school. Is that something you did
as a boy? Where did you come up with the idea?
I grew up just before the Internet. I
didn’t have all this information about
sexuality that kids now have at their fingertips. Also, our
video games pretty much sucked. But I liked to read,
and I knew my way around a library. And one magical
day, when I was 14, I found these pictures of nude
guys in medical textbooks. It was a great surprise to me. I
was small for my age and pessimistic about ever
maturing, and so I was looking for scientific
confirmation that I was hopelessly deformed. Instead,
what do I find? Hot nude pics to take to the bathroom with
me. Later I found lots of sociology books to help
inform my budding sexuality. I’ve talked to a
lot of people since then who learned about their
sexuality in libraries, even had their first homosexual
experiences in the library bathrooms—libraries
really are notorious for tearoom sex. To me,
there’s something really sexy about hushed rooms, old
books, and undone zippers; the contrast of muted study
and intense passion (and even the way that study can
become so passionate and thrilling). And librarians
are so fucking sexy—prim, proper, intense,
smart—and, very often queer. In any event, the
chapter you cite is pretty authentic to my
experiences, and I’m glad it reads that way for you.

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