Poor Boy by Jaime Samms – review

Rating: 7.5/10 ★★★★★★★½☆☆ 

Title: Poor Boy
Author: Jaime Samms
Genre: Contemporary gay romance
URL: Freya’s Bower
Price: US$4.99
Other Information/Warnings: Mild violence, mild drug usage, unsafe sex
Summary (from the publisher):

All his life, Roy has had things easy; born to money and privilege, he’s a grown man before he realizes how his father’s money has bought his privilege off the backs and tragedies of too many people. Now he’s on his own, and making his way in the world might be a lot harder than he thought.

When he meets street hustler, Scooby, he falls, hard and fast, not wanting to believe the possibility Scooby is one of the unfortunates his family has stepped over to get their way. As young and fragile as Scooby seems, he might be the only one strong enough to save Roy from himself.

My Review: Jaime Samms knows how to write men…masculine, flawed and terribly appealing men.  There is no doubt about it.  You won’t find pale stand-ins in any of Samms’ work (at least not that I’ve read so far), no overly feminized version of men. This is no chick-with-dick lit. What you get in Samm’s work is an utterly realistic view of gay men at their very best and at their very worst. You not only get the men–in all their flawed beauty–but you also get what goes into making a man, the journey that has brought them to this particular place in their lives…and sometimes, it isn’t pretty.

And so it is with Poor Boy, an excellent addition to Samms’ growing body of work.  Often gritty and set in a seedy world of hookers and pimps and users, Poor Boy is not your typical gay romance and is not always the easiest read…and I mean that in the best way possible. The novella takes some dark turns as we travel through life with our protagonist, Roy, a young man who should have had everything in life, but doesn’t. He comes from disgustingly affluent parents, has had the best education, the right friends.  Not only has he grown up on the right side of the track, but he’s lived on the hill overlooking those tracks and the town that surrounds it. Yet, Roy has always liked living on the edge, running with a dangerous crowd, throwing his decent boyfriend over for the rough edges he sees in Stryker Preston (another boy who could have had everything he ever wanted), embarrassing his family by having his shenanigans land on the front pages of every important newspaper.  But as we learn, there’s a reason behind all of this.

When the story opens, we meet Roy, returning to a family home he detests to face his father and the rapidly declining woman who had once been his mother. Having accidentally killed two young parents and leaving their children orphaned, Roy’s mother is on the mental and physical decline caused by too many years of alcohol abuse and too long a time mourning for her own son, the elder Paul, the incredibly handsome, favored son who died while attempting to help Roy. Father, it seems, has decided to force Roy to walk away from his wild lifestyle by carting him and his mother off to Virginia, where she can escape the memories the house drowns her in, and Roy can leave his partying days behind him and lead a respectable life, one fitting the family name.  But when Roy refuses, his father cuts off his funds, and when Roy tells his “boyfriend,” the drug addict Stryker, the user kicks him to the curb, literally abandoning him in a seedy section of town with no money, nothing but the rich clothes on his back.

It is here that Roy meets Scooby, a young, wonderfully attractive hooker and former drug addict, and his brother Clark. Roy is pulled into their world of living hand-to-mouth.  Without money or friends or even a cell phone, can Roy find a way back into his posh, pampered world?  If not, can he survive in Scooby and Clark’s? And what about Scooby and Clark…is there more there than meets the eye, a connection to Roy’s former life? But most of all, can Roy keep his desires and libido in check and stay away from the boy-like Scooby as Clark has warned him to do?

One of the things that Samms always does well and repeats here is get down exactly how men talk (or in some case, don’t talk) to one another.  There’s a distinct suspiciousness and caution in most men’s–and especially gay men’s–interaction with each other, a sizing up that happens almost silently.  When we’re good at talking to one another, we’re very good, and when we’re not, we can be the biggest idiots on the planet. And each of the three primary character’s are full of this verbal and non-verbal interaction, Scooby being generally open, but cautious; Roy often not thinking of the impact of his words; and Clark being a reserved man, one of few words but many meanings.  Samms also handles the non-communication well, a tricky thing to accomplish in any fiction.  Many times non-communication tends to drag the pace of a story down, but here it reveals a lot about each of the characters.  There is a lot going on in the silences.

Wisely, Samms let’s us spend time with the characters before we get to the real romance and sex of the piece.  We see Roy’s attraction to the achingly adorable Scooby from near the get go.  At first it is a superficial lust, but when Roy controls himself (with the help of brotherly threats from Clark), he actually begins to discover Scooby’s personality, the quirks that make him the appealing man he is.  The result is an air of tension that slowly builds and makes the reader ache for these two to get together. By the time Scooby and Roy do come together physically, it is both romantic and highly erotic, the time taken to build the relationship being time exceedingly well spent.

Lest you think this piece is all about getting to know one another, let me mention that there is a plot and it is peopled with interesting character.  The world Samms has built is palpable, gritty and grimy, but one that is completely realistic. That world is what propels the plot.  We wonder how Roy will get himself out of the situation he is in and we wonder right along with him if he’ll be able to save Scooby and his brother from the life his family may have placed them in.  In that respect, the story is one of Roy’s self-redemption, his saving of others to save himself.  But what is really interesting is that the character Roy wants to save most is the man who hasn’t let his past haunt him or tear him down. Who is the man that needs protecting?  Scooby or Roy?  It is a beautiful dynamic.

Now, as much as a fan as I am of Samms’ work, there are some nits to pick in here, though the relationships built overcome all of them.  At times, the story veers slightly into melodrama, taking on a Douglas Sirk feel. Luckily, when Samms stands on the brink of going too far, she pulls back to the well-grounded reality that serves the story best.  Writing wise, the prose matches exactly the tone of the piece.  It is descriptive enough without ever turning purple, with just enough gritty detail to keep the piece from becoming overwhelming. I had a few problems simply with the layout of the text and paragraph breaks, however, and at times I had trouble knowing exactly who was speaking.  I would have to go back and read again, keeping careful track of the back and forth.  Luckily these times are rare.  There are also a few misplaced modifying phrases that niggled the grammar side of my brain.  But all in all, it’s all very clean and smooth.

Whereas Samms’ lead characters are extremely well rounded, the secondary characters fare less well.  Personally, I would like to have seen more of Clark and his personal feelings and reaction to the life he and his brother have found themselves in.  He is the protective brother and while we see glimmers of the man who has been forced to be both brother and father to Scooby, we never really delve into what it has all cost him.  Likewise, the “villains” of the piece tend to be the slimmest of the characters.  We never really get to know Stryker beyond the definition of user; the pimp Pater doesn’t quite rise beyond his occupation.  And the extremely minor (but important) character of Mr. White veers dangerously close to a modern-day Fu Manchu. Still, the secondary characters generally fare much better than usual in such a short work.

Plot wise, the story moves along at a nice pace, but it does rely heavily on deus ex machina. Rather than the characters working themselves out of the situation they’ve found themselves in, the resolution hinges on a series of events that, while not coincidences, are definitely the results of others’ actions. The escape route is simply handed to them.  Still, this doesn’t draw away from a completely engaging piece built on the strength of the lead characters and their developing relationship.

In the end, Samms has created believably wounded characters that never feel oppressive in their angst. She masterfully maintains a subtly romantic tone in an utterly realistic world, and gives us characters who we just want to see get together.  Along the way, without ever noticing it, we also get a nice story about how one’s past can make you weaker or stronger, depending on the choices we make. One has to wonder who is the titular Poor Boy, and Samms wisely leaves that up to us to decide.   A very satisfying journey.