Kevin, all of 13 years, has just gotten a haircut from his Uncle Paul's friend Xavier, whom he suspects is gay. This concerns him. "What if someone from school saw this fade and knew it was gay? Did I just do something gay by accident?" Kevin is into girls and affirming his masculinity so how others see him is a concern.
Much of the story of Chris Terry's debut novel, which will appeal to young teen-age boys, gay or straight, revolves around Kevin dealing with his discomfort about gay lifeespecially when he learns his uncle is gay. The novel also explores Uncle Paul's anxiety about coming out.
Zero Fade started as a short story. "I had the idea for the Uncle Paul storyline while writing one of the first scenes, where Kevin is referring to his uncle as the apotheosis of manhood," explained Terry. "Then I thought, 'It would really fuck with this kid's head if his uncle was gay.' That's when the short story turned into a book."
Terry admitted that, as an adolescent, he was a homophobe. "I was new to the idea of dating women, so any tweaks to that formula were not welcome because I hadn't even figured out the basics." He started to get over his prejudices a couple of years later when he discovered a favorite coworker was gay. "It's all about exposure. You can hate a group of people if you are ignorant about them, but when you find out that this great guy at work who cracks you up with his Madonna impressions … is one of those boogiemen, it changes your perspective."
Zero Fade picks up speed when Kevin begins to grapple with the knowledge his Uncle Paul is gay. While most of the story focuses on Kevin, Paul's concerns about Kevin's acceptance of him is key as well. "It wasn't violence that Paul feared. It was losing this relationship [with his nephew Kevin] that he'd been cultivating since he was a teenager and Kevin was a baby. It would all mean nothing if he couldn't be honest with his own family, with this kid that he thought the world of."
The novel takes place in Richmond, Va., in the '90s, where the author spent some of his teen years. His family moved there from Massachusetts when they were experiencing financial difficulties. Son of an African-American father and an Irish-American mother, Terry had to make some adjustments dealing with the cultural differences between New England and the South. "Massachusetts is predominantly white, and the culture is reserved. People speak their minds more in the South. … In Richmond … there was this tone of, 'You're Black. Don't deny it. You can't pull one over on us like you did in Massachusetts.'"
Kevin, the young boy who is the soul of this book, is hurting from the absence of his father, who left the family long ago. We ache at Kevin's description of writing a letter and putting his dad's name on the envelope (sans address) in hopes he would get it. "Maybe," says Kevin, " he was the mailman and would find it that way."
Terry explained his strong connection with kids. His mother was a youth librarian. "I inherited the joy of working with kids from her, watching her in action, seeing how she engaged with young people at the libraryand with me and my friends."
Working with incarcerated youth around Chicago helped too. Terry participated in a creative writing program through Storycatchers Theatre where the kids acted out each others' stories. "It was always really cool to see people choose to bond as a group. It can be very hard to trust people at that age, especially if they're in situations like some of these kids are inin jail where a lot of those insecurities are amplified." Terry acknowledged working with kids in this program helped him with Zero Fade, even though his young protagonist was not a troubled youth. "Yes, it strengthened my bullshit detector," he laughed.
Terry worked hard at making Kevin's story free of condescension. "I don't want to make it seem like I'm telling young people how to think. I don't want people to feel like they're being preached at. I'd rather just have the story ring true."
He succeeded. Terry is an accomplished writer who understands a youthful boy's perspective, portrays it with the proper mix of humor and gravitas, and peppers the telling with the vernacular of young people in the '90s. Zero Fade is a good read for adults as wellentertaining plus informative on how a teen-age boy might awaken to the harm anti-gay sentiment can do.
The reader can easily identify with the characters in this novelKevin, Laura his older sister, his friend David, their mom, and Uncle Paul as they deal with what mattersbecoming comfortable within your own skin, dating, and dealing with bullies.
Jacob Knabb, book acquisitions editor at Curbside Splendor, explained the publishing firm was interested in the fresh young novelist because his was a young, exciting voice. It was "… authentic. … He's got some stylistic stuff you don't often see in first novels."
Terry's next project? Drawing on his youth and 200 pages of material already written about his family's move to Virginia, which forced him to re-explore his racial identity. Or possibly an incident in his early 20s when he was suspected of a violent crime he didn't commit. "It made me pull back and consider how the whole world acted and how the people around me saw me. And if that matched how I saw myself."
Zero Fade by Chris L. Terry, Curbside Splendor Publishing, softcover, 295 pages, $12.00.