‘Brooklyn, Burning’ by Steve Brezenoff
Author: Isaiah Vianese
December 27, 2011
Steve Brezenoff’s latest novel tells the story of a street-kid in Brooklyn accused of burning down a local warehouse. However, the more interesting storyline in Brooklyn, Burning (Carolrhoda Books) has little to do with the fire, but focuses on the protagonist’s love interests, particularly a newly arrived street-kid who is also a gifted singer.
The challenge in reading this novel is sorting out the gender politics the author presents in the love story. The book features a first-person narration by the homeless sixteen-year-old hero. The reader finds out the speaker’s name: Kid. Kid’s parents have kicked the teenager out of their apartment. A year ago, Kid fell in love a heroin addict named Felix, who is no longer on the scene. That’s all we learn about Kid because Brezenoff makes the unusual and thrilling decision to keep Kid’s sexual identity/gender a secret. This ambiguity creates a curious tension in the narrative. When Kid interacts with other characters, the reader must examine the narrator’s actions more closely, rather than just make assumptions based on sexual orientation or gender. Is Kid attracted to a close friend, Konny? Did Kid’s parents kick him/her out because of how he/she blurs gender distinctions? Does Kid identify with a “conventional” gender? Of course, these questions captivate and frustrate simultaneously.
At its best, Kid’s androgyny drives the plot forward and draws attention to the speaker’s romantic relationships. We know for sure that Kid has fallen in love with men—namely the missing Felix—but the idea that Kid may only love men is complicated when we meet Scout, the newest street-kid. Kid never reveals Scout’s gender either and addresses this love interest in the second person. All we know is Scout can sing and play guitar, and Kid quickly falls for the stranger.
Their relationship starts with their mutual interest in music. Kid is a drummer, and they play together. Brezenoff uses music to describe their growing attraction, and often to beautiful effect:
It was slow, then a little faster, and eventually we found a good tempo for the changes. When you slipped in a new change, I switched to the ride and let it be the chorus—the “refrain,” Felix would have called it. A few measures later you went back to the original changes, so I dropped down a little and closed up the hi-hat. Then you started to sing
There were no words—at least, I don’t think there were—except now and then you’d drop in something with sense. But it didn’t matter. Your melody is what counted, and it counted a lot. It floated over the changes, above them. It wove through my rhythm and the chords you played, like a pixie through a crowd—better than them, more than them. In every way, the melody elevated the song until it almost felt complete, like it always would be complete: you just had to open your mouth and let it come out.
Brezenoff capitalizes on music’s universal appeal to highlight the universality of love and attraction. While partners may be gendered, affection and sensuality lack such restrictions. Though the novel does not explicitly explore sex, the jam-session scenes sing with eroticism and warmth. Kid reveals his/her attraction by describing Scout’s talent with such care.
Unfortunately, the warehouse fire narrative has less spark. While the accusation that Kid burns down the building highlights Kid’s marginalization at home and with the community at large, it distracts from the important and interesting work the novel accomplishes discussing gender. For the first half of the novel, this subplot introduces us to Felix and creates another (perhaps unnecessary) point of tension in the narrative. Brezenoff falters in pacing the subplot, which races in the first half of the book, rushing us past some important details regarding Kid’s relationship with Felix. Then, after a big reveal at the halfway mark, the energy behind the warehouse mystery drops. In order to wrap up details, Brezenoff brings us back to the storyline in the last one hundred pages for what feels like narrative housekeeping, not good storytelling.
Ultimately, Brooklyn, Burning finds compelling material in small details. Brezenoff creates kind, talented, and conflicted characters. Kid provides such energetic narration that we cannot help but feel pulled into the character’s heartache, but more importantly feel captivated by the character’s love for Scout. What could be a narrative about unrelenting hardship becomes a story about redemption, hope, and companionship. In fact, Scout’s presence uplifts Kid and helps the narrator find emotional balance, while also breathing fresh air into the novel. Scout provides Kid essential encouragement and becomes a symbol of the future.
The highlights of Kid and Scout’s relationship remain their mutual fascination with music, and how the tenderness of their romance creates a universal ground for all readers. Through Kid and Scout, Brezenoff reminds us of the limitations we place on each other through the labels gay and straight, or male and female. Though it might be too grand to claim that this novel is “post-gay”—a term that has become chic in certain literary circles—it is an interesting book for readers who want to consider how the experience of falling in love can transcend such restriction.
by Steve Brezenoff
Hardcover, 9780761375265, 202pp