SEPTEMBER 23, 2014
JOHN DONOVAN’S 1969 novel I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. is almost certainly the first book for young adults that deals explicitly with homosexuality.
Forty-five years later, gay men and women are comparatively well represented on television and are commonplace in young adult literature, and not merely as sidekicks. We now have many gay protagonists, and coming out isn’t always the focus of the narratives; a character’s homosexuality can be merely a trait, like red hair, or left-handedness. Pop songs extol marriage equality. What is groundbreaking within one cultural context can seem routine a few years later.
To mark its 40th anniversary, I’ll Get There was brought back into print by Flux in 2010. Editor Brian Farrey-Latz is credited with the decision: “It felt like something that I could have just plucked off the shelf,” he said. “Though the book is clearly set in a different time, it doesn’t feel like a product of another time.”
Donovan’s book is told in a spare, conversational first person that seems to owe a lot to J. D. Salinger. (In fairness, almost every book with a teenage narrator published since 1951 seems to owe something to The Catcher in the Rye.) The protagonist, Davy Ross, does drop the word “phony,” but he isn’t an ersatz Holden Caulfield; he’s sweet, not a cynic, a boy more than a young man. Here’s Davy, early in the book, on his late grandmother:
She always tried to ask me questions about schoolwork and friends. She worked very hard at being a good parent. She never had the pleasure of being a grandparent. Poor good girl. Now she never will.
Davy’s parents are divorced. His mother is a childish, selfish alcoholic (based, says Donovan’s niece and executor Stacey Donovan, on the author’s sister-in-law); his father is a gentle, somewhat put-upon man. Upon the death of his grandmother and guardian, Davy moves from Boston to New York City to live with his mother, though his father is in the city as well, sharing an apartment with his girlfriend.
With a new home comes a new school, and it’s at this school that Davy meets Douglas Altschuler, known by his surname, as all the students at the school are. The two boys fall in love.
In a 1968 letter to the author (who at the time was the executive director of the Children’s Book Council, a nonprofit trade group), the editor Ursula Nordstrom wrote, “I have been waiting a long time for a manuscript that includes ‘buddy-love problems’ and it will be fine if you are the one to do it successfully.”
Donovan’s side of the correspondence does not survive, so it’s not clear if “buddy-love” is his coinage or Nordstrom’s, but it does seem possible to infer that Donovan set out, in this novel, to tell a story that was not being told: his own.
“The book was like life, because his life was like that book,” says Stacey Donovan, herself a writer. “John was a very private person. Even though he had best friends in every country and was a very personable, affable, charming guy, he was a very private, Bostonian in that way.” Donovan notes that the relationship between Davy and Altschuler is similar to that of the author and Stan Raiff, a theater producer who was his partner for 14 years. The couple owned a pair of dachshunds on which Donovan almost certainly based Davy’s pet Fred, a central figure in the book.
But where Donovan and Raiff were men (Donovan was 40 when Nordstrom accepted the book for publication), Davy and Altschuler are boys. Accordingly, Davy’s feeling toward the other boy is more affection than desire. “For the next couple of weeks the most important thing to happen to me is that Altschuler and I get to be buddies, for a while anyway,” Davy tells us. There is some (quintessentially 1960s) depiction of sexual awakening — principally a dream in which Davy wanders naked on a beach — but the romance is chaste. Buddy love.
I feel unusual. Lying there. Close to Altschuler. I don’t want to get up. I want to stay lying there. I feel a slight shiver and shake from it. Not cold though. Unusual. So I open my eyes […] I guess I kiss Altschuler and he kisses me.
“Boy,” I say. “What was that all about?”
“I don’t know,” Altschuler answers.
In another missive to her author, collected by Leonard S. Marcus in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, Donovan’s editor at Harper Junior Books writes:
We’re going to meet a lot of resistance to this book and we will be eager to fight that resistance as intelligently and gracefully as possible. But I am very glad you wanted to write this book, and I am glad that we have the opportunity to publish it. I think it is going to mean a lot to a lot of young readers, if we can just get it past the adults who buy their books!
Nordstrom, herself a lesbian, knew that the book would be meaningful to the boys and girls whose reality it depicts. Farrey-Latz, who brought the book back into print, feels this is as relevant today as it was a generation ago.
“I think this book is good for those kids who need that mirror to say, ‘Wow, I’m not that unusual,’” he says. “I still think that’s important for kids who are questioning. I think it’s just as important for kids who aren’t questioning their sexuality, for a straight boy or girl, because then the book becomes a window: This is what your classmates may be going through. I think it engenders a sense of compassion, and that’s what I think is really important.”
When Nordstrom published I’ll Get There, homosexuality was still categorized by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental disorder. Accordingly, she solicited a cover blurb from Dr. Frances L. Ilg, then director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development at Yale University. Ilg’s statement is cautious:
A moment of sex discovery is told simply but poignantly in the life of a thirteen-year-old boy through his relationship with a friend of his own age and sex. It is how he absorbs this experience that becomes the key to what will happen next. Davy is able to face the experience and make his choice.
It’s hard to imagine any book published today requiring a disclaimer from a physician.
In the book’s climax, Davy and Altschuler, inhibitions tamed by dipping into Davy’s mother’s whiskey, kiss again, and eventually fall asleep together on the living room floor. His mother discovers them, limbs entangled, and grows suspicious. She calls his father to the apartment to discuss the matter, while she takes Fred the dog, Davy’s constant companion, out for a walk. Fred escapes her grasp, runs into traffic, and is killed.
Fred died because of some stupid lies about making out. It certainly isn’t in my nature to queer around. I never did it before. If it hadn’t been for Altschuler, I never would have done it at all.
Davy sees the dog’s death as a punishment. “The trope of homosexuality equals death goes back a long time,” says Farrey-Latz, who notes that he’s heard criticism of Donovan’s decision to dispatch poor Fred. Donovan, though, is not adhering to that particular moral chauvinism; Davy is. When Davy ultimately confronts Altschuler, essentially blaming the dog’s death on their romance, Altschuler dismisses that argument entirely.
By the book’s end, the boys’ friendship is intact, but their romance has concluded. This is the choice of which Ilg speaks: Davy seems to have made the choice between homosexuality and heterosexuality, which now is generally understood as not a choice at all. This ending, which probably made the book more palatable to its contemporary readership, might gall some today.
Ilg, though, may have been mistaken, or she may have been playing coy. It is true that Davy does say to Altschuler, at the book’s conclusion, “I guess the important thing is not do it again.” “It” being kissing, it standing in for, perhaps, being gay. But this reading fails to account for one of the book’s most important components: the title.
“In my mind, it’s almost an unspoken epilogue from Davy,” says Farrey-Latz of the book’s unusual, unwieldy title. “To me, the title is kind of him saying, ‘Give me time. I’m not ready to deal with this yet.’” The title is so conversational, so much in the voice of the narrator, that it makes sense to look at the moment in the text when the author uses the title (think of Raymond Carver, in his story “Why Don’t You Dance?”). That moment never arrives. It’s further confounding that Davy doesn’t use the metaphor of a trip or journey, and no character makes a reference that explicitly lines up with the notion of “getting there.”
It’s not until finishing the book that you realize the extent to which the title completes the text. Davy ends the novel much as he starts it: an affable, and pretty typical, teenage boy. In the title, he tells us how he’ll turn out. The choice he makes, the choice of which Ilg speaks, is not between hetero- and homosexuality; rather, it’s the choice to take his particular trip through life a bit more slowly. He’ll get there, to queerness, when he’s good and ready.
Stacey Donovan sees hints of her uncle in Davy; readers may also divine the adult John Donovan in Davy’s father. In that climactic scene when Davy’s mother takes Fred for his final walk, leaving Davy and his father alone in her apartment, the two have a conversation that clearly speaks to the much larger issues at play in the book.
Then Father talks a lot about how hysterical people sometimes get when they discover that other people aren’t just what they are expected to be. He tells me there are Republicans who are always secretly disappointed when friends turn out to be Democrats, and Catholics who like their friends to be Catholic, and so forth. He says that such people are narrow-minded, he believes, and funny, too, unless they become hysterical about getting everyone to be just alike. Then they are dangerous.
Farrey-Latz mentions that educators are incorporating I’ll Get There into surveys of gay literature, so it’s earned a spot in that particular canon, one it deserves. But, as a book for young readers, academics are bound to value it more as a sociological curiosity than work of literature.
The book was brought back into print not for college students in survey courses, but for teens, those in the throes of coming out as well as those in search of a good read. A book may not possess the power to save a life — but it might — and surely a book that teaches empathy is a worthy thing. Reading this book for the first time, as an adult, I thought of the boy I once was, as well as another gay boy not long ago in the news, Tyler Clementi. A college freshman, Clementi jumped to his death off of the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing another boy in his dorm room. He was but one of who knows how many boys and girls who do not get there, who never find out that it is, in fact, worth the trip.
We can assume that Nordstrom and Donovan had, as children, felt as Davy feels. They got there — to a happy, successful, loving gay adulthood — and reasoned that the trip could have been easier. They sent Davy and Altschuler and Davy’s father and even Fred to help guide the next generation.