The challenge of writing a character who is a part of a marginalized group -- say blacks, Hispanics or, in the case of Tomas Mournian's Hidden, a gay teenager -- is that all too often the drama of suffering overwhelms the character's humanity; instead of developing into believable people, these characters just become bleeding-heart foils for tedious series of hardships and predictable redemption. Whether or not Hidden's gay-teen protagonist Ahmed will avoid that fate throughout is unclear, but the humor, skill and unexpected degree of gritty action with which Mournian tackles chapters nine and ten (nine was really short, so I did an extra one) offer a pretty promising start.
Maybe it's just my own prejudices, but going into a coming-of-age story about a gay teen, I sort of assumed the drama would be familial or interpersonal. It isn't. Chapter nine reads more like a thriller, which was so unexpected that I initially thought it was a dream sequence -- Mournian's choppy, occasionally disorienting style probably contributed to that. But see if you can see where I'm coming from:
I know I can't ask for help. I just follow a cute guy to an escalator. It stretches so far down I can't see where it ends. Down, at the bottom, a train pulls into the station. Orange and white doors slide open. Black letters spell out CASTRO. Castro's Ground Zero for The Gays. For safety (or, something like it) the Castro's my Number One destination. I hope.
It becomes clear as the chapter continues that Ahmed is being followed by someone, a mysterious figure with "blue robot eyes" from whom he is trying to escape; his flight leads him to a conveniently located shelter for homeless youth, where he's able to take refuge. At the end of the chapter, the blue eyed man appears on the other side of a locked glass door Ahmed is behind and menacingly strokes a knife handle. Intriguing.
Where chapter nine is all action, chapter ten settles in to where we can get a feel for the character some -- and he turns out to be a good character. Wry, sarcastic and snotty, he makes a very convincing jaded gay teen: The insults he flings in narration at everything around him have the acerbic underhandedness of bitchy female humor coupled with the aggressive overtness of a teen male, which is kind of what it seems like good gay humor should be. Between lines of dialog, Ahmed's constant observations are consistently entertaining as he talks with a caseworker at the shelter, to whom he takes an immediate dislike:
"I can't help you if you won't tell me what happened." She narrows her beady banker eyes. Now I get it. I'd better barf up some trauma now or get the fuck out. She expects me to wrap my story with a little bow and hand it over. Here, for you, Ms. Irritata, for your collection. Merry Christmas!
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If the rhythm of the line-of-dialog-paragraph-of-inner-head-monologue-line-of-dialog-and-so-on approach Mournian takes here gets a little repetitive after a while, it still does more or less what it's supposed to do, which is to carry the action while revealing the character -- all the same, at the end of the chapter, we get another cliffhanger: Ahmed dials a mysterious number (the context must be in another chapter) and gets a voice that somehow knows the layout of where he is and tells him to go upstairs and hide in a certain stall of the women's bathroom.
In fact, there's a lot of intrigue here -- and it's an interesting idea to place a gay coming-of-age story within the framework of a cliffhanger, and one that Mournian handles capably. It might be a gimmick, but it's a, you know, intriguing one.