Remember when you were in high school and it felt as though those locker-lined halls were your only world, as though what happened beneath those flickering neon lights could make or break you for life, as though breathing another breath depended on whether your crush smiled at you in homeroom or avoided your gaze? In Canadian novelist Janet E. Cameron's Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World (the title and cover are deceiving, by the way; there's more world-ending angst than warm comfort of toast in the home kitchen), the reader is taken back to a place that might be familiar: sneaking smokes in the basement, attempting to talk to your mom while a little high on pot, attending wild and pointless parties to which everyone and no one is invited, making one impulsive decision after another because in your world everything must be immediate. (How can you wait when a single day feels like two weeks?)
Cameron's portrayal of 17-year-old Stephen Shulevitz is astonishingly good. There's an alchemy here that not every writer who takes on a character so different from herself can achieve. She captures it all: the monosyllabic speech that doesn't betray the confusing inner world (not unless you really listen), the constant sexual urges ("Too excited. At the top of the basement steps I had to sit for a minute and count backwards from a hundred in French."), the puppyish male bonding.
But one place where Stephen differs from typical teenage boys is here: He is in love with his best friend. And Mark is not in love with him (nor is he aware of the love directed his way) because Mark is that guy, the one you fell in love with in high school (or maybe it was just me) despite his Neanderthal-like qualities. He can be more than his bad home life, the crappy part-time job he's destined to work at forever, the juvenile delinquent record. If only he would try harder.
Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is a good summer read because a juicy coming-of-age story, especially one with a twist, fits well into a beach bag. But it's also an important read. Cameron spools out the story of Stephen so that you feel his heartache, self-revulsion and abject terror in painful increments. You understand what it might feel like to come out as gay, not just in the insular town of Riverside, N.S., but anywhere. Maybe Paris, where the first gay marriage was recently performed under tight security while protesters waited in the wings with pitchforks. (Figurative ones, but still.) Or maybe in parts of the world where you could be executed for homosexuality.
When Stephen self-flagellates, sometimes inwardly, sometimes by actually burning himself with matches in a misguided attempt at DIY cognitive therapy, you want to tell him what anyone who has survived a postsecondary education knows: When high school ends, the world doesn't. Instead, it opens up and frees you from the chains of bullying classmates and the only boy you thought you'd ever love.
What you also realize as you read this book (just in case you haven't already) is that those who love the same sex, rather than the opposite, love in a way that is just as exhilarating, just as painful, just as unlikely to feel like a choice. Love doesn't always make sense, no matter which side you approach it from. Cameron possibly didn't set out to prove this point, but she has.
Marissa Stapley Ponikowski teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto and editing at Centennial College.