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REVIEW: It Helps With the Blues – Bryan Cebulski

REVIEW: It Helps With the Blues - Bryan Cebulski

Genre: YA, Coming of Age

LGBTQ+ Category: Gay, Bi, Ace, Non-Binary

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About The Book

Jules leaves.

Gabriel rages.

Estelle changes.

Joshua hides.

In the aftermath of a classmate’s suicide, a boy embroils himself in a community of Midwestern teens, each doing what they can to cope as they stumble—together and apart—toward a life worth living.

The Review

It Helps With the Blues is not a romance.

I first met the author, Bryan Cebulski, when he submitted a poignant post-apocalyptic tale called “From the Sun and Scorched Earth” to Other Worlds Ink for the “Fix the World” anthology. It’s the story of a broken boy – barely a man – who was sent to war and has a hard time coping with peace, and another young man who tries to break through the ex-soldier’s walls. There was something exquisitely beautiful and timeless about the story, and the hopeful but ambiguous way it ended that touched my heart. There are a lot of similarities with this story’s structure.

I didn’t know it at the time, but “From the Sun and Scorched Earth” was Brian’s first official publication (amazing what you learn when you read a book’s afterword LOL). I’m thrilled about that – I still remember the folks who bought my first story. When he asked if I would read his first novel-length work, I jumped at the chance.

As I said up top, it’s not a romance. Nor is it sci-fi in any way, shape, or form, like his first short story. Instead, it’s a deeply felt, non-linear tale of what it’s like to grow up queer in the Midwest, drawn from the author’s own experience. As he explains (talking about the initial chapters):

Like most teenage writing experiments, it felt rushed, sentimental, and confused. But I liked the premise of a boy observing the world around him a la Nick Carraway [The Great Gatsby, which figures prominently in the book], and I knew the near-rural suburban Midwestern setting was something I would never see depicted unless someone like me did it. So I kept working on it.ˆ

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell you that the story starts out with a suicide. Dennis, a character tangentially connected to the first person narrator (whose name we are never told) is a bit younger, and appears briefly at the start. His death sets the stage for a lot of the soul searching later in the story. As the novel progresses, we see why he did it – it’s a little like 13 Reasons Why in that way, but more heartfelt and honest IMHO. No gimmicks here.

The narrator is the son of moderate wealth – his father is a chef who runs a number of restaurants and bars in town. They live in a McMansion and are the object of jealousy for many of the less well-off folks. Our narrator tells us that he was an asshole in Junior High and early high school, but he’s come out of it to be a half decent human being who is mostly drifting through his life.

About half the story is told in flashbacks or epistolary fashion, through letters and essays written to the narrator. This serves to enforce the passivity of the character – things happen to him, but they are rarely initiated by him. His friend/crush Jules explains it best:

Let me dissect you as I would a character in a boring novel for AP English. This character takes a passive role despite seeing himself as the protagonist of his story. He is willing to allow people to bitch at him relentlessly, to absorb all their bullshit. He observes, perhaps quietly judging, with a distant look in his eye.

And bitch they do. The story has four primary characters besides the unnamed narrator, who serve to mirror back reflections of himself and challenge his assumptions about life, his own character, and both the past and future.

Jules is the first to enter the scene, and also the one who provides the coda to the book. She’s on a journey of discovery of her own, bored with their little town and the Midwest in general, and is at times brutally honest with the narrator.

Gabriel comes next. He’s a gay friend of the narrator’s who’s basically a self-righteous asshole who doesn’t suffer fools, and that includes the narrator. He’s also a lost soul who reveals the hollowness at his core in a long letter.

Then Estelle, a non-binary character to whom the narrator was a real asshole years earlier in school. They have a short flirtation, but ultimately he ends up being almost a stalker to them, until a mutual friend tells him to back off.

And finally Joshua, who was a friend to Dennis and is Jules’ younger brother, ends up being the most likeable and sympathetic of the cast.

There’s a little bit of Night Before Christmas here, with each of his friends playing the part of one of the ghosts of his past and future.

So yeah, this is not a romance. It’s an introspective, deep coming-of-age story about being queer in Middle America, and it pulls no punches. I was drawn in by the narrator, and if the ending was less definitive than I’d hoped, well, maybe that’s part of the point. He lives a life of quiet desperation that he convinces himself is contentment. But we see behind the mask, especially when one of his friends rips it to shreds.

And the title? You’ll have to read the book to find out what it means. 🙂

This is not the kind of story I normally read. I’m more the sci-fi and fantasy kinda guy. But it’s really well written, and it got to me. I loved the allusions to The Great Gatsby and the sense of being dropped into this kid’s world. It’s full immersion, baby, sink or swim.

I’m gonna be optimistic, and say he was able to swim, in the end.

Five stars.

The Reviewer

Scott is the founder of Queer Sci Fi, and a fantasy and sci fi writer in his own right, with more than 30 published short stories, novellas and novels to his credit, including two trilogies.  

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