By Todd Alexander
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
Some readers may remember an earlier novel from Todd Alexander – Pictures of Us – published back in 2006. Now almost a decade later, Todd has a new novel out and it has certainly been worth the wait. Tom Houghton explores the titular character at different ages, although there is more focus on Tom as a 12-year-old schoolboy, who is obsessed with Hollywood films and film stars. He utterly fails to fit in with the other boys at school and hides from them during recess, occupying himself by reading his Hollywood magazines. The 40-year-old that Tom morphs into is not an especially likable character. He’s an actor who turns vicious and self-destructive when he drinks too much – which he does rather often!
However, young Tom is a more endearing character for the reader and gay readers are especially likely to feel a real affinity with him. Young Tom’s particular obsession is with Katherine Hepburn – he owns 26 of her films on video and has watched them all three times! Then while reading a biography of Hepburn, he learns that her mother’s name was Houghton and that his grandmother actually met the movie star when she was touring Australia. As if this connection wasn’t enough, he then discovers Katherine had a brother called Tom who killed himself as a teenager and that he and Tom not only share the same name, but also a birthday. Young Tom becomes absolutely obsessed with and convinced of a special connection between the two of them. He writes to Katherine Hepburn, and begins to plan a very special costume for a theme day at school assembly. He becomes convinced that his costume and his connection to Thomas Houghton will completely transform his status at school. Instead of being the boy who is teased and bullied, he imagines that finally everyone will understand how very special he truly is.
This is a very accomplished and captivating new Australian novel. The storyline about Katherine Hepburn’s brother will be unknown to the many readers who aren’t great fans and it is fascinating. But the way Hollywood-obsessed young Tom latches onto this is also beautifully developed and rings utterly true. The bullying that Tom endures at school and which culminates at the novel’s climax is also brutally authentic. Another highlight of the novel is the complexity of the characters. Even young Tom has his flaws and three decades later, he has some serious issues! But many of the characters surrounding Tom are equally well developed, all too human in their flaws and not especially likeable. Although the coming of age story is standard fare in gay literature, Todd Alexander’s version has many unconventional moments and is almost wholly unsentimental. This is to his credit and his novel is all the more powerful for taking that approach.