Fantasy Collides With Reality
Author: Barry Lyga
Author Barry Lyga likes to push the YA envelope. That’s a good thing. He doesn’t write down to his audience and challenges them to push past the sometimes fluffy, comfortable boundaries of fiction written for teenagers. He knows that they’re smarter than a lot of what’s being written for them, and can handle topics that others wouldn’t dare touch. In Boy Toy he does exactly that, going deep into a set of circumstances that will make everyone who reads the book uncomfortable. As they should be.
Boy Toy is a novel about child abuse. In particular, it’s a novel about an adult female having a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old boy. I know, that isn’t so cutting edge – but Lyga doesn’t approach the subject from the third person or from the perspective of an adult. He presents the entire story in the present tense, directly from the head of the child.
Josh Mendel is 18 years old, a senior in high school, a star athlete with phenomenal grades and excellent college prospects, a lifelong best friend and absolutely nothing going for him. How can that possibly be? The kid is like a golden child – good looking, smart, athletic. He’s also scarred, outcast, miserable in his own skin, angry and suffers from what he calls “flickers”, times when he disappears into his own past for a brief period of time, against his will and often without warning. Josh wants nothing more urgently than to get out of Brookdale, the small town where he was raised. The small town where his seventh grade history teacher became his lover, then went to prison.
Josh tells us the story – *his* story – of how his relationship with Mrs. Sherman – Eve – came to be. He tells it all, what it felt like, how he felt
about her, what they did and where they did it. He tells us how he assaulted a girl his own age during a flicker, the incident that ended his relationship with Eve, sent her to prison and marked him for the rest of his childhood. He talks about baseball, his friend Isaac (aka Zik) and his string of straight As going back to 3rd grade, his therapist, his fighting parents and his fear of something he can’t really articulate. He holds nothing back.
And that, right there, is what makes Boy Toy so uncomfortable to read. Lyga doesn’t let Josh hold back his thoughts and feelings about anything – and that includes his sexual activity with an adult woman. People sometimes snicker at the notion of an adolescent boy being “abused” by a sexy adult woman – it’s every boys dream after all. Right? Boy Toy shows exactly where living that dream leads and it isn’t pretty. Josh’s impressions and emotions are so damaged that he hasn’t spoken to the girl – once one of his best friends – that he assaulted since that night. He feels such guilt, about so many things. What Lyga does is walk us through that guilt, from its very beginnings to its bitter end.
Boy Toy is beautifully written. Lyga captures this child – now almost a man – and lets us into his deepest secrets, his darkest places, his helpless confusion. Josh has lived for 5 years in a sort of emotional stasis, wallowing in his infamy, seeing blame and derision everywhere he turns, never stopping to think that it might not be real. It’s his accidental reunion with Rachel, the girl from that horrible night, that pushes him to look at his past and try for the first time to honestly move forward rather than simply run away. Josh as a character is heartbreaking and real, his confusion so palpable, his reactions so skewed that the reader wants to reach in and fix his mindset, alter the way he sees the world and set it all right again. But instead we wait, and suffer with him as he tries desperately to come to terms with everything that he feels and thinks he knows about the world – his world.
Overall, Boy Toy is a hard book to read, but eminently satisfying in the end. It’s a painful look at the truth of this particular form of child abuse and the crushing emotional scars it leaves behind. It thoroughly dispels the myth that this is not the same as other types of sexual abuse and leaves the reader with a better understanding of the real consequences of this predatory behavior. 4 out of 5 stars and a strong recommendation for both adults and teens.
— S. Millinocket
photo by Larry D. Moore