This month’s round-up includes first-time novelist Lu Vickers on a young girl’s coming-out in the Deep South during the early 1970s, a breakdown of why the book version of Notes on a Scandal is far more successful than the controversial film, and the new anthology of Michelle Tea’s top picks.
Breathing Underwater, by Lu Vickers (Alyson Books)
Lily Edwards, the narrator of Lu Vickers’ Breathing Underwater, has a whole host of troubles: Her town, Chattahoochee, Fla., revolves around a mental institution — "a trap, like one of those man-eating plants" — where everyone is either a patient or an employee; her father is detached and unreliable; her brother, James, is favored because he’s a boy; her sister, Maisey, because she’s the youngest; and her mother, the pivot of Lily’s existence, relies on pills and alcohol to treat her depression and psychosis. Being "a lezzie," a term she learns at her Baptist church camp, is the least of her problems.
But, of course, being gay is rarely the least of any adolescent’s problems, especially in the Deep South during the early ’70s. Lily does her best to disguise her emerging identity and sexuality. When she plays "the kissing game" with her friend Rae, they always insist that someone plays "the boy." She keeps her hair long. She carries her books by her side rather than against her chest. If she needs to look at her nails, she holds her fingers out flat rather than turning her hand around. Still, Lily knows she’ll be "in deep trouble if anyone ever found out that I hated wearing dresses, that I’d kissed Rae, or that I’d stood in a souvenir store looking at a doll’s titties."
Breathing Underwater begins when Lily is 12 years old. She is fishing at the lake with James, Maisey and her mother when she accidentally falls in to the water. Unable to swim, she frantically kicks her legs and tries to call out for help. As her head bobs up and down, she spots her mother standing on the dock: "Mama didn’t move. She was going to let me drown and was weighing her gains against her losses. Watching me, eyes flat as pennies. I was Not the Right Kind of Girl. Never had been."
Finally, Lily’s mother jumps in and saves her from drowning. But the hesitation and the understanding that she was "Not the Right Kind of Girl" continues to haunt Lily as she grows up. Lily decides that the only solution to her problem is to fall in love with a boy named Ronnie. "I needed to be normal," she thinks, though the relationship comes to an end when Lily meets Cat Reeves, a new girl at school who, with her "fluffy Afro and dark glasses," looks like a " Jackson 5."
When Lily’s mother discovers the relationship with Cat, she finally has the opportunity to unleash her venom, and the two get into an all-out brawl: "I held her tighter," Lily says, "and she screamed even louder, ‘Let me go, you goddamn queer, you goddamn queer,’ and it was strange, hearing my own mama call me a name I hadn’t thought of calling myself."
Later, when Lily’s mother sobers up, they’re in the bathroom tasting baby powder. "I don’t remember the first time I saw Mama eat baby powder; it was just something she always did, as if it were ordinary," Lily says, and then tastes it herself. "The powder felt like chalk in my mouth, tasted faintly of perfume. Not ordinary, but something I could get used to, like the way it left the palm of my hands feeling like silk, soft and slippery. Like being queer."
Toward the end, as Lily begins to confront her sexuality and family, she remarks, "I felt tired, like I’d been awake for a million years." Her exhaustion is well-earned, and the overall narrative pace of the book is exhilarating. Breathing Underwater is a coming-of-age and coming-out story. But it’s also more than that. It is a story about accepting circumstances and people you cannot change. It is about understanding how to grow up, to move forward and away.