Book #86: Bear, Otter, and the Kid (2011)

BearOtter&KidAudMEDAuthor: T.J. Klune
Language: English
Length: 740 minutes (12 hours 20 minutes)
Finished listening on: 5 May 2015

I put this book off for a long time, despite having seen it in the gay fiction sections of Amazon and Audible repeatedly. A lot of that is to do with Sturgeon’s law regarding diminishing returns: ninety percent of gay fiction is awful. Plus, this book has a really bad title, as if the author sat down to write a clickbait title. How do we attract gay people to this book? I know, let’s make the main characters have nicknames that are straight out of gay culture and refer to their body type! But it was getting good reviews, has two sequels, and is popular enough to justify recording as an audiobook (to be fair, this isn’t much of an indicator, but it can act as a weak litmus test), so I gave it the benefit of the doubt and went for it.

The title’s explanation turns out to be rather unsatisfactory, as well, because the titular characters Bear and Otter, despite being named after gay body types, are nothing of the sort. A quick primer in case you’re clueless about gay male culture and still reading this: a bear is a very hairy and probably chubby and/or muscular man, and an otter is hairy and thin or younger than a bear – it’s the middle ground between a bear and a twink (a bear’s polar opposite, a young hairless guy). Why gay men have to name and compartmentalize body types in such a way I will never know – it frustrates me – but rest assured they have a standard meaning, so when the characters here are described and they’re nothing like their namesakes, it’s confusing at best. Indeed if anything, they’re the opposite, as Otter is the large burly one who is older. The names are supposed to be misheard by a younger character, then become the nickname of the older character.

The Kid is fairly self-explanatory, though, to a degree. It seems to be a standard-ish arc of stories about gay families that the main character becomes the custodian of a young child (usually with some degree of unwillingness, to preserve a sense of conflict in the story). In this case, Bear (actually Derrick, and called Bear after his brother mispronounces his name) comes into custodianship of his brother Tyson after his mother ups and leaves. The gay aspect comes in a bit later as Bear finds out he’s in love with Otter (actually Oliver, and so named because Bear misheard his name as a kid too) and goes through something of an explosive coming out process.

It’s funny how I seem to end up reading stories of parental abandonment (I wonder what that says about me?) – there are some very obvious parallels that I can draw with Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, which I watched this year, with the mother leaving her children, or the book with the long title by Dave Eggers that I listened to last year, in which a young man has to raise his significantly younger brother after the death of his parents – except both of those are true stories. More directly looking at the gay side, many people reviewing this book on other sites pointed out that the plot is almost exactly the same as the film Shelter, although I haven’t seen that, so I’ll offer the Spanish film Bear Cub, or Cachorro, which also has a similar plot and actually features real gay bears.

Now that the basic plot background is out of the way, I have to point out that the book is fundamentally flawed in a few ways. It’s told from the first-person perspective of Bear, who has a lot of angst during pretty much all the book, and as a result it uses a lot of rambling stream of consciousness (though not to the degree of the aforementioned Eggers book, which was basically one long confusing stream). Bear’s conscience is basically another character referred to mysteriously as “it”, taunting his actions from the sidelines. The story itself is a bit confusingly told too – I think the author attempts to use the technique of in medias res at the beginning, but it doesn’t work well, and thereafter, there’s a lot of jumping back and forth. The audiobook presentation, I should add, helped a lot with some of these problems, as it gave the impression of the main character having a conversation with me. I think I’d be less forgiving if I was just reading this normally.

Then without intending to spoil too much, there’s a poor third-act twist involving the return of Bear and Ty’s mother and a rather poor justification for an eleventh-hour crisis of confidence in the relationship. This is the standard story trope, and I don’t blame the author for using it, but there are good and bad ways to do it, and this book picked the wrong one. In general I found a lot of the storyline decisions unrealistic, perhaps because I was convinced that if everyone in the story just sat down and talked about it honestly, there’d be no problem.

So in that and many other ways (like I’m always a bit wary of someone having a “single target” sexuality, and Bear constantly protests, especially at the beginning, that he’s not “like that”), the book is flawed, or at least gives the distinct impression of a first-time author still trying to find his feet. What kept me going with the book – and incidentally, kept me hungry for more in the firm of the sequels – were the characters. Without exception they were lovable, especially the Kid, who is a wise beyond his years clever brat. The characters and the situations far outweighed the poor writing style. For example, Bear’s inner monologue may have been annoying after a while, but I could find a lot of myself in that character, and even after I put it down, I was anxious to know that he’d be okay. It also feeds into a recurring joke where the monologue comes spilling out, to the confusion of all around him. Such light comedy interspersed with drama is the way this book goes, and in that aspect it’s definitely strong.

I also have to quickly mention that I enjoyed very much the idea of making your own family, the main theme of the book. I guess I feel that I haven’t quite got to that stage of life yet, where the line between friends and family is blurred, so I liked setting such a depiction in gay fiction.

So I don’t know what it is that does it, but these characters and this storyline manage to get under your skin and stay in your thoughts long after they’ve finished. With the caveat that writing needs some polish, I definitely have to recommend this book to anyone who’d be interested. Give it a try!

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2 Responses to Book #86: Bear, Otter, and the Kid (2011)

  1. Pingback: Film #187: Shelter (2007) | reuoq

  2. Pingback: Book #107: Tell Me It’s Real (2013) | reuoq

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