Everything was suddenly different, but what had just happened would not fall into place in my mind. The circuitry had never been laid for this — like learning a foreign language. The verbs were reversed with the nouns and the vowels were crashing into the consonants and every adverb and adjective had turned into a jumbling semantic puzzle. Everything that happened was like finding a new word for a meaning you had already assigned to something else, and this frantic switch-around exploded the normal. Words flew off the page and refused to come back. They could not be reigned in and disobeyed my thoughts. They could not be harnessed. They flew like bats at dusk. My heart flew with them. I had entered a new plane, and nothing would ever be the same again — thank the Lord Almighty!
That’s Bernie/Henry, the main character, discovering what a kiss can be like. Ryan Rhodes’ novel Free Electricity gives a loving tribute to the young gay men who were tortured through BYU’s aversion therapy program. A central theme is that they are/were human individuals whose suffering should not silently become a footnote in a dusty history book, dismissed and forgotten. And while the primary romance in the story is a tragedy, the tale as a whole is a beautiful and poetic — even playful and fun — celebration of life.
The story is an exmormon life adventure, one in which Mormonism is a force that will either kill you or make you stronger, as you test your own strength against it. The protagonist’s experience is shaped by growing up gay and Mormon in a rural Mormon town in the 60’s and later attending BYU in the early 70’s, and the reader is invited to see how adversity fertilized the flowering of the gay community in the 70’s. It’s clear to the main character as a child that he doesn’t fit, and that his differences will ultimately be a ticket to some faraway experiences he could hardly imagine. Meanwhile, his childhood peers mostly end up settling down young, following their parents’ well-worn life path.
It’s amazing how dramatically the situation for young gay people has changed in just a couple of generations. It can’t be simply described — young gay twentysomethings who want to understand would do well to read a life like this one. The author describes how the main character’s social development was stunted by the fact that he didn’t have a framework or language for understanding his own feelings and by the fact that he intuited that he needed to construct psychological walls to protect himself and his mysterious secret. As horrible as it was, though, he meditates on the question of whether modern gay kids haven’t lost something precious by having it too easy.
Also note that a lot of the experiences he describes — about how being different can start you on the rocky but rewarding climb out of Mormonism — aren’t unique to the gay experience. As in any human tale, people of all different genders, orientations, and backgrounds will be able to relate.
The book is quite long, longer than it needs to be. But it’s long in much the same way that Les MisÃ©rables is long — with lots of interesting and poetic asides. If you’re not in a hurry and are looking for a book to cuddle up with this Winter, Free Electricity is an enjoyable read and a good choice.