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The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy




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About The Author

Robert LeleuxRobert Leleux

Robert Leleux teaches creative writing in the New York city schools.  His nonfiction pieces have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Texas Observer, and elsewhere. He lives with his husband, Michael Leleux, in Manhattan.

photo: Photo: Michael Leleux

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Reading Group Gold

In the Dear John letter Daddy left for Mother and me, on a Saturday afternoon in early June 1996, on the inlaid Florentine table in the front entry of our house, which we found that night upon returning from a day spent in the crème-colored light of Neiman’s, Daddy wrote that he was leaving us because Mother was crazy, and because she’d driven me crazy in a way that perfectly suited her own insanity.
 
In a memoir studded with delicious lines and unforgettable set pieces, Robert Leleux describes his East Texas boyhood and coming of age under the tutelage of his eccentric, bewigged, flamboyant, and knowing mother.


A Few Words from Mother
 
To the Readers of My Genius Son’s Book,
 
Everywhere I go with Robert, people ask me, “Don’t you mind the things your son writes about you? The wigs, the plastic surgery, the vomit...”And my answer is no, it doesn’t bother me that Robert writes about it, it bothers me that I had to live through it.
 
Most of the events Robert recounts in this book occurred during the most god-awful time. And though, in looking back, I can see that much of my behavior was, well, unusual, it all seemed so reasonable at the time. Which brings me to another thing people tend to ask me when I’m out with Robert: “What have you learned from the experiences you’ve lived through?”
 
And my answer is “Nothing.” “Nothing?” they repeat. “Well, I wouldn’t shave my head again.” Because that really wasn’t a good idea. But again, at the time, it seemed entirely logical. Which tends to be the way with life. It seems you can operate with complete certainty, and still, in the long run, be completely wrong. Shit. Wrong and stubborn really is a terrible combination.
But of course, you don’t know that until much later. Sometimes not until your son writes a book about it. And that, in its own way, is a marvelous consolation, because at least something good and funny came out of the lousy times.
 
At least Robert can see the humor in the really terrible decisions I made, instead of just silently resenting me for them, like the children of every other woman in every other country club in America. As it turns out, I’ve had bad luck with all the men of my life, except my son. There hasn’t been a single moment of his life when I haven’t worshipped and adored Robert, and now there’s a book to prove it. With a beautiful picture of us on the cover. Heavenly.
 
Much love,
 
 
Swoon by Victoria Redel
 
When I was sixteen, my mother offered me fifteen hundred dollars if I swore never, ever to read her another poem I hadn’t written. I cashed her check, but I’ve cheated once or twice. And the only time it’s ever ended happily was when I discovered this poem, written by my super-hot friend Victoria Redel, from her book Swoon. Mother says that more than anything she’s ever encountered, this poem expresses the way she felt raising a gay son. It’s very lovely, and I hope readers will love it, too.
 
Tell me it’s wrong the scarlet nails my son sports or the toy store rings he clusters four jewels to each finger. He’s bedecked. I see the other mothers looking at the star choker, the rhinestone strand he fastens over a sock. Sometimes I help him find sparkle clip-ons when he says sticker earrings look too fake. Tell me I should teach him it’s wrong to love the glitter that a boy’s only a boy who’d love a truck with a remote that revs, battery slamming into corners or Hot Wheels loop-de-looping off tracks into the tub.
 
Then tell me it’s fine—really—maybe even a good thing—a boy who’s got some girl to him, and I’m right for the days he wears a pink shirt on the seesaw in the park.
 
Tell me what you need to tell me but keep far away from my son who still loves a beautiful thing not for what it means— this way or that—but for the way facets set off prisms and prisms spin up everywhere and from his own jeweled body he’s cast rainbows— made every shining true color.
 
Now try to tell me—man or woman—your heart was ever once that brave.
 
Excerpted from Swoon by Victoria Redel. © 2003 The University of Chicago Press
Reprinted with permission.


A Conversation with Robert Leleux
 
Excerpted from an interview conducted by Kelly Hewitt at www.loadedquestions.blogspot.com
Is there any part of your writing that you attribute to a life growing up in the Lone Star State?
The Mouth of the South, my grandmother used to call me. And as for Texas, I dearly love it. Houston is home for me in a way that no other place ever will be. I might be alone in this, but I actually think it’s a beautiful city, and every time I go back, something in me just sings. And I believe that East Texas is just about THE best place in America for a writer to come from—because it hasn’t yet succumbed to that horrible homogenization of language that’s stripped so much of America of its regional sounds. It seems to me that there’s only a handful of places left that sound like themselves, and I think that maintaining that is so precious. Grace Paley said something like, “a writer has to listen to the world with two ears: one turned to the language of literature, and the other turned to the language of the street you grew up on.” And it’s so terrific to have been born to a place where the language is so charged and funny and off-kilter gorgeous.
A few reviewers have warned readers that your book is “not for the faint of heart.” Do you think that’s a fair label?
What’s the expression? “Faint heart never won fair maiden.” Something like that. Well, I don’t know— practically everyone in Michael’s family has a heart condition, and they all loved my book. And there have been a couple of completely lovely ladies who’ve written to say that they read my book in the hospital, and that they laughed so hard, their nurses thought they were having some sort of attack, and what do you know, laughter really is the best medicine. Which absolutely makes my life worthwhile— the opportunity to actually cheer up a person who really needs of a good laugh. Who could ask for anything more? I mean, the magical, miraculous thing about books is that you write them alone, in an empty room—a really private experience—and then, they venture out alone in the world. They enter rooms you’ll never see, they meet people who’ll forever be strangers to you. It’s very moving to me— especially since my book’s a memoir, and there are people out there I’ll never know, with whom I’m having this very sort of intimate experience. VERY strange, and wonderful. But to answer your question— if you want Barbara Pym (AND I love Barbara Pym), I’m not Barbara Pym. Or as Joan Crawford said, “If you want the girl next door, go next door.” What was it like doing your book tour with your mother?
Well, I maintain that it’s a real marker of virile masculinity, traveling with your mother. How many brawny He-Men would even attempt it? It [was] a total blast. If anyone out there ever contemplates a tour of any sort, I recommend taking someone with you. Because your job, out on the road, is to meet lovely strangers who’ve been kind enough to care enough to come out and say hello to you, and to be very, very present—and it’s enormously helpful to have a person, like your mother, guiding your arm, and keeping an eye on the task at hand. ALSO, I would recommend taking MY mother with you. Because she’s very funny, and it never hurts to have a gorgeous, glamorous woman with you, even if she does happen to be your mother.
The whole thing started off as a joke—in a marketing meeting with my publisher, I said, “Maybe I should bring my mother with me!” And no one laughed. Which taught me a real lesson. Namely, don’t make jokes in marketing meetings, because they have a tendency to become PR strategies. So then, I called Mother, and said, “What do you think of the notion of heading off on the road with me?” And she said, “I’ll call you later, I’m going shopping.” Which is my mother’s means of preparation. So she got some gorgeous new suits, and adventure ensued. It was very much like that Erik Preminger book about being on the road with his mother, Gypsy Rose Lee. I kept looking around, and there Mother was, sitting cross-legged on the Vuitton suitcases, smoking, and looking very glamorous and world-weary.
When do you think your mother will write a book about you?
I only wish my mother would write a book about ANYTHING! I’d be first in line to buy it—I feel like my job in life is just to follow the genius, brassy women in my family around with a pen, and write down everything they say. My grandfather and I look at each other all the time, and say, “How lucky are we to be in the same room with these ladies!”
What are you working on now?
Well, I’ve got several pots on the stove. It looks like a little picture book I did might be coming to fruition...and I’m working on a sequel to my book. And I have what I think is the most adorable idea for a young adult series. But you know, there’s that great line about somebody saying to Baudelaire, “Mr. Baudelaire, I have the most TERRIFIC idea for a sonnet,” and Baudelaire says, “Sonnets, sir, are not made of ideas.” And brother, you can say that again. Sonnets, and anything like them, are made of hard, slaving work. And as you know, hard work never gets any easier. It’s that awful, awful Zen thing about writ-ing—how every time you sit down with blank paper, you’re beginning again. VERY humbling. Because blank paper is no respecter of worldly success. And you just have to keep returning to that desk every day, and sometimes it’s like going in for A Day of Beauty at Elizabeth Arden, and sometimes, it’s like going to the salt mines.


1. What are some of your favorite of Mother’s “quotable phrases” in Memoirs? Which of her words-to-be-embroidered did you find particularly funny, offensive, profound—or all of the above?
2. Robert spent most Saturday mornings at Neiman Marcus with Mother. What does he learn there about style and sophistication, art and artifice, and—most important—his identity? Discuss the department store as microcosm in Robert’s world, and our own.
3. Take a moment to talk about Mother’s desire for— and her attempts to be found desirable by—a wealthy new man. Do you believe she was desperate, or just deluded? Do you judge her for embodying the cliché of a Texas gold-digger? Or do you have sympathy for her as a so-called starter wife?
4. How do you feel about Daddy in Memoirs? Is he worthy of contempt? Or does he deserve forgiveness? What is your lasting impression of him, after the conversation he has with Robert on the phone?
5. What would have been different for Daddy and Mother has they given birth to a beautiful girl instead of Robert? Discuss your theories about what this family might have been like.
6. What does it mean to be “beautiful” in the context of this memoir? Is beauty skin-deep? Is it masculine or feminine? Coveted or feared?
7. How did Robert escape his small-town circumstances by joining the theater? In what ways— metaphorically and literally—does role-playing parallel one’s coming-of-age? How did Robert eventually assume the role of his own true self?
8. Discuss the significance of Robert’s dream in which he appears as a guest on the Barbara Walters Special, and Barbara tells him: “You’re under the impression that the story of your life is your mother’s story. But in time you’ll realize that the story of your life is your own.”
9. “My time in public school taught me the lesson every gay boy learns fast,” writes Robert. “That language is the weapon of the powerless.” Talk about Robert’s path toward leading a literary life.
10. Now that you have read the material in this guide, do you feel differently about the author, or his mother? Were any of their insights surprising to you? How?

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