Jason Banning is a wreck. His leg’s been blown to hell in Afghanistan, his boyfriend just left him and took the dog, and now he’s back in his hometown of Pinehurst, Washington, a place that holds nothing but wretched memories…and Nathan Tull. Nathan Tull, whose life Jason ruined. Nathan Tull, who will never believe Jason did what he did for a greater good. Nathan Tull, whose reverend father runs the gay conversion therapy camp that Jason once sought to bring down—at any cost. Nathan Tull is trying to live a quiet life. Four years ago, when Nate was a prospective student visiting UW, his world collapsed when senior Jason Banning slept with him, filmed it, and put the footage online. A painful public outing and a crisis of faith later, Nate has finally begun to heal. Cured of the “phantoms” that plagued him for years, he now has a girlfriend, a counselor job at his dad’s camp, and the constant, loving support of his father. But when he learns Jason is back in town, his carefully constructed identity begins to crumble. As desperate to reconcile his love for God with his attraction to men as Jason is to make sense of the damage he’s done, Nate finds himself walking a dangerous line. On one side lies the righteous life he committed himself to in the wake of his public humiliation. On the other is the sin he committed with Jason Banning, and the phantoms that won’t let him be. But is there a path that can bridge those two worlds—where his faith and his identity as a gay man aren’t mutually exclusive? And can he walk that path with the man who betrayed him?
Dear Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock,
In the past I enjoyed several books you wrote together, however I won’t lie. I was both tempted and hesitant to try this one. Tempted because we all have our catnips and one of mine is to see how one of the guy deals with the betrayal from his lover ( in any setting, really) and off the top of my head I can remember exactly one story where I was happy with how such plot development was executed. So it is not as if I oversaturated myself. I was extremely hesitant not because this book is about religion, I just could not imagine how one could introduce the “grayness” in such horrific subject matter as torture of the gay kids by trying to make them give up part of who they are. I definitely feel very “black and white” about it.
Overall I am glad I read the story. I think I should issue a conditional warning though (as somebody who is straight and who had been blessed to never experience the “disease of the camp” the kids in this book experience). I think (but have no way of knowing obviously) that if somebody was forced to undergo “conversion therapy” this would be a painful read for them. There is also a suicide attempt, two actually, one in the past and one very much in the present.
The blurb is good for the set up. Jason is coming back home to care for his ailing aunt and because of his bad leg injury he suffered in Afganistan. Four years ago he slept with Nathan, a son of the preacher who runs camp “Moving forward” where gay kids are brought by their “loving” parents to make them straight. I put “loving” in quotes on purpose, because once again this is a very black and white subject for me.
Jason you see also had a noble goal to bring the camp down at all costs, literally and that’s what he did and what’s a little collateral damage of violating Nathan and his privacy?
I will tell you this much readers, I had no idea how the writers would make me believe that the romance between these two was believable in any way, shape or form. I am happy to report that for the most part they did. It is not that I liked what Jason did. I hated it, however I understood Jason’s motivations, I most certainly saw his regrets and eventually I reached the moment when if Nathan was able to forgive, I was ready to not just be happy for him, but forgive Jason too.
I am struggling to explain this, but I really liked the writing in this book. I thought the very good attempt was made to portray complex and complicated people and I thought the writers mostly succeeded.
Of course the character I am most torn about was Nathan’s father. I skimmed some reviews of the book and I saw one on Amazon which argued that it was not stated enough in the book that “conversion therapy” was wrong. I strongly disagree with that. I do not believe that the authors attempted to justify what was going on in that camp, not once. However they did not make a cartoon villain out of Nathan’ father and it made sense to me. I mean don’t the most people have the reasons in their brains to justify the awful things they do.
“Even though a part of him knew that Nate was right: Timothy Tull genuinely love the kids who came to Moving Forward. And that just made it more of a fucking tragedy, didn’t it?”
Let me repeat though, genuine love or not, the authors do not shy away from showing what horror conversion therapy is even in most loving hands.
Overall I thought the shades of gray in both Nate and Jason’s characters were done really well. I mean Jason is a deeply flawed character, considering how far he went for “ends justify the means” road and Nathan was victimized by him and then all over again by his father ( unwillingly but who cares, result was just the same). Normally I would be so very troubled at the very idea of Nathan going back to him. I actually thought Nathan’s comparison about his father and Jason both being zealots in some way was really well done.
I was also amused that at the end Nate addressed that very idea ( because him and Jason being together is likely to be in the public eye again).
"Nathan looked at him. “I think about... what kind of example it’ll set for the kids that have come through here. For gay kids all over. Because the media is probably gonna get wind of this, and it is gonna be a thing. And what does it tell young people, if I let myself be in a relationship with someone who abused me like that?”"
"“But I also think that this has to be about me now. It can’t be about what other people think of me. And can’t be about some... like, social definition of right and wrong. I believe that God’s the only one who can decide right and wrong. And people have to do what’s in their hearts. As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. If I’m making a mistake with you—If, if it is a sin to be gay, or if it’s a sickness to want someone who’s hurt you… Then I’ll answer to God. And only God. Not my father. Not the media. Not even to the kids.”"
I think because Nate is a person of faith even though his faith is constantly evolving as he searches for answers throughout the book as to what his relationship with God should be, it helped me to buy his willingness to forgive Jason and it did not come easy to Nate either. I believed that he made his choice freely.
And what about Jason? I had no doubts at the end that he had his priorities straightened out and agonized over his choices almost from the beginning of the book but four years ago he did try to bring down the evil thing. It is almost as if the writers tried to show that in life there are often no neat answers to every question.
"“I don’t owe anyone anything!” he snapped. He shook his head, trying to clear it of the perpetual ache he seemed to live with now. “I’ve paid. Okay? I paid in Afghanistan. And I’m paying now, watching my aunt die. I pay every fucking time I see the scar on Nate’s wrist. I do not owe you. I do not owe ‘the world.’ The only one I owe anything to is Nate. And what I owe him is the choice I failed to give him before. The privacy he’s been denied over and over again.” Jason’s voice grew ragged. “Trotted out like a show animal by his father, for each new group of kids. Forced to fucking perform, to use his suffering to contribute to theirs. To deny who he was, and ask them to deny who they were. To defend his father, and that fucking disease of a camp…”
“But it wasn’t quite that simple. Age might cement beliefs, but it also put you on more intimate terms with uncertainty. Vulnerability. With everything that came to challenge those hard-won beliefs. The jaws that clamped around all your hopes and wishes and shook them until stuffing popped from the seams. Those beliefs, those dinosaurial certainties, became your toeholds on the crumbling mountain you were forced to climb. Jason felt like he’d aged a hundred fucking years since Tacoma. He could look back on that twenty-two year old who’d “leaked” a video of himself fucking Reverend Tull’s son and not have a clue why.
What sort of blinding stupidity, careening arrogance, or dearth of understanding had let him do that? But he could also look back, and somewhere, under scars and skin, feel the same blood pulsing through him, feel the same tough threads of righteousness holding together a frayed and faded man. He couldn’t escape what had happened by claiming he was a different person. He had to accept what he’d done into the whole of himself. He’d hurt Nate in a bone-deep way that nothing could ever justify. Collateral damage, he’d told himself when he couldn’t quite believe the lie that he was doing Nathan Tull a favor. Collateral damage. Well, that was something he and Reverend Tull had in common, wasn’t it?"
Overall I thought it was a very well written and quite dark book. I doubt I will ever reread it but I am glad I tried the story.