3 out of 4 stars
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Jeremiah’s obsession with men began early in life. Sexually abused as a child by not one but two stepfathers, he begins to see his body as nothing more than a tool for sex, and he grows up seeking physical pleasure with men to fill the emotional void where love should be. Unbeknownst to the young and naïve Jeremiah, this is a recipe for getting your heart broken.
And in the Illinois of 1940, if you’re not careful, being gay can get you killed.
Determined to discover his place in the world, Jeremiah makes a name for himself at school as one of the few local boys that enjoys “fooling around” with other boys. It isn’t long before word of his activities gets back to his parents. When Jeremiah is thrown out of the house at age 13 by the same stepfather who molested him for years, he suddenly finds himself homeless in a world that is much larger than he is, having no clue how to survive in it. He embarks on a solo journey to Chicago, where he hopes he can start life over again. But unfortunately for Jeremiah, everything in the big city has teeth.
Bughouse Blues, written by Raymond Strait, is a historical fiction novel that follows a young man’s sexual awakening in a time when people like him were considered second-class citizens. The book is set mainly during WWII, but the events are entirely plausible in many parts of the United States even today.
With an approachable narrative style, the book is a quick and compelling read that constantly leaves the reader needing to know what Jeremiah will do next. His struggles are presented in a raw, unfiltered fashion that does not shy away from the brutal reality of life for many gay kids at that time. I particularly loved the colorful characters that sometimes support him along his journey and sometimes serve as stumbling blocks; my favorite character was Howie, an older “mother hen” who takes Jeremiah under his loving wing as Jeremiah fumbles his way into gay life.
Although the protagonist is barely 18 by the time the story ends, this is not a book for children. Between the rampant violence, the large number of sex scenes, the recurrent theme of sexual abuse, the abundant foul language, and the inclusion of one particularly offensive racial slur, there is more than enough adult material to make the book inappropriate for teenage readers. The book contains several mistakes in grammar and therefore still requires a bit of editing before it will be ready for publication; this need for further polishing is my only criticism of an otherwise excellent read.
Bughouse Blues earns a score of 3 out of 4 for its absorbing examination of the rougher sides of life as experienced by young gay people in intolerant environments. It loses a star solely for its errors. The book would most appeal to adult readers who are members or allies of the LGBTQ community.
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