Swimming to Chicago

Barnes, David-Matthew. Swimming to Chicago. Pre-edit review copy. Valley Falls, NY: Bold Strokes Books, 2011. Paperback. 230pp. $13.95. ISBN: 978-1-60282-572-7.

A coming-of-age and coming out story, Swimming to Chicago follows a year in the adolescent lives of two friends, Alex and Jillian. After his mother’s unexpected suicide, Alex’s anger is uncontrollable. He is mad at everyone, especially his father. Things do not improve when his dad starts dating the new neighbor, a married woman whose husband is cruel and largely absent from her life. However, he is drawn immediately to her son, Robbie, who happens to also be gay. Alex has recently come to terms with his sexuality and the two of them quickly become a couple. Although he has found new happiness, he holds a grudge against his father for doing the same.

In the meantime, Jillian has developed a crush on her new English teacher, who happens to be Robbie’s stepfather. Although he is middle-aged and she is barely eighteen, they act on their attraction and have a tryst outside of the classroom, resulting in her pregnancy. When she tells his wife of her plight, it is revealed that this has happened before, and that it is one of the reasons they moved in the first place.

Over the course of the year, Alex and Jillian realize that they have been growing apart, and, reunited, hatch a plan to get out of their small town and head to Chicago, the big city, to start a new life — just Alex, Robbie, Jillian, and the new baby. Things are not meant to be, however, and the book takes a shocking twist.

Swimming to Chicago reads less like a completed narrative than as an early draft of a later novel. A good editor could probably help this book become more rounded, smooth out some of the choppy language, and help mitigate the unbelievable plot points — chiefly that Alex’s father begins dating his new love exactly one week after his wife’s unanticipated death at her own hand, and that Robbie and Alex become fathers at the ripe old age of 18 and set about raising the baby with no assistance from their families.

There are also unrealized elements, such as Alex’s Armenian heritage, which is never developed, even though it is mentioned frequently enough that one expects it to become a major aspect of his personality. These issues make this book a relatively unpleasant read — the only characters with any appeal are Robbie and his mother — and Alex’s anger and cruelty towards his father are deeply disconcerting.

Although I feel that Swimming to Chicago has potential, I would not recommend it to libraries in its current form.


Reviewed by, Emily Faulkner
Chicago Public Library


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