Joseph Boone’s debut novel, Furnace Creek, tells the story of a white, middle-class boy who, through a series of events and strange encounters, gets lifted into the world of high culture, something he’s dreamed of but never expected. “Expected” is a key word here as Boone borrows from the plot-master Charles Dickens to retell the classic bildungsroman Great Expectations, exchanging Victorian England for 1960s America, arguably one of the most turbulent decades in social history. No one can outdo Dickens when it comes to creating characters that hold; think Miss Havisham, Oliver Twist, Scrooge, the Micawbers; but what Dickens couldn’t do that Boone can is give the story a modern twist by exploring the inner life of his teenage protagonist, Newt Seward, which is as turbulent as the times. The primary problem is that Newt is gay, a sexuality that was closeted in the 1960s, taboo and illegal, and that to act upon could result in the loss of family, job, and reputation, not to mention jail. Boone gives us clues to Newt’s sexual interior but keeps Newt himself in the dark, making the bildungsroman a story about a young man navigating a world in flux and ultimately recognizing his sexuality and embracing it.
The opening scene of Furnace is as steamy as the title suggests: we find 13-year-old Newt blissfully masturbating on top of an old Civil War munitions furnace, his eyes fixed on the open, beckoning sky. At the moment of climax, a fist pounds him on the chest and a looming presence bellows out, “Give me your name, boy, quick!” Not exactly coitus interruptus, but pretty close. Like Pip in Great Expectations, whose body is literally turned upside by the escaped convict in the graveyard, Newt’s interior is forever shaken by being caught in the act by a woman he knows, Zithra, an escaped convict and the former housekeeper of his neighbor, Judge Harold Leroy. Zithra threatens to expose Newt if he doesn’t do her bidding, which is to break into the judge’s house and steal a ledger that she will use as blackmail to get her freedom. Unlike Pip, who is ridden with guilt for stealing from his sister to aid the convict, Newt finds that he likes being bad. After stealing the black ledger from a wall safe—along with a Playboy—he goes into the upstairs master bath, takes a leak, looks in the mirror, and smiles. Having an orgasm that ends in terror would, I think, permanently scar someone’s inner being. But so too would committing a crime and rather than remorse, feeling good. Our narrator, we learn from the first chapter of the novel, is complicated, his interior a mixture of competing affects that both propel and stall his plot of development.
Something has to happen (beyond masturbation and crime) to fill Newt’s fantasies for a bigger, more wonderful life and move the narrative. Such a something occurs when at the age of 15 he becomes a hireling for the wealthy, eccentric Julien Brewster (a nicer Miss Havisham), his duty being to organize Brewster’s expansive, eclectic library and entertain his two wards, Marky and Mary Jo Seward during their summer visits. These wards, who are actually twins, are “the most beautiful creatures [Newt] could imagine existing”; they are confident, sophisticated—they live in France!—and they are nice to Newt (unlike Estella in Great Expectations, who serves as Pip’s beacon while breaking his heart). Newt tells us that Mary Jo and Marky are the “living embodiments of the sophistication and worldliness that [he] desired for himself”; he both wants them and wants to be them. This fantasy becomes more real when Newt discovers he has a benefactor with deep pockets and that he is to go to an eastern boarding school in preparation for Harvard. Not surprisingly but mistakenly, Newt believes his benefactor is Julien who is preparing him for a life with Mary Jo.
But while Newt thinks obsessively about Mary Jo—he’s a romantic and believes marriage to be the fulfillment of his desires—it’s Marky who excites him sexually. We’ve seen Newt’s dark side—the breaking bad moment when he smiles in the mirror—but in public, even with the twins, Newt is proper and conservative because he feels like an outsider and is afraid of being exposed. Marky, on the other hand, acts on his desires; he caresses Newt when he feels like it, teases him about sex; he’s confident because he has the beauty, charisma, fortune—without familial duty—to be a free agent. At the end of the summer after much champagne, the three exchange their fraternal relationship for a sexual tryst. But what excites Newt the most, particularly in retrospect, is the moment when Marky unzips his pants and strokes his erect penis, creating a “torment of ecstasy” that is interrupted when the caretaker’s son, Samson, appears with news that Newt’s mother has been attacked and raped. Once again, pleasure is interrupted with negative affect, this time shame and guilt.
Considering the interruptions and the constant interplay of ecstasy with terror and shame, one might conclude that Furnace is about repression with little interest in sexual satisfaction. However, sexuality is everywhere in this novel, subtle and felt more than directly experienced. Yes, Newt’s “solitary act” at the beginning of the novel is interrupted by Zithra, and his moment with Marky by the pool is interrupted by Samson and news of his mother’s attack. And yes, when he finally has sex with Mary Jo, it’s lackluster at best, and when he drops out of Harvard and moves to Rome, he rejects Marky’s sexual overtures because Marky is drunk. Such repetition of the sexual act being promised but not delivered is overdetermined, giving hint that pleasure might reside elsewhere in this novel. Boone, it must be remembered, is an academic writer. He taught at Harvard for eight years and just retired from USC after twenty years of teaching and publishing scholarship. He is renowned in academic circles for his contributions to the fields of narrative theory, modernism, and gender studies. In his second book, Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism, Boone argues that the modern novel does not necessarily provide pleasure in the expected places—at climax, at possession, at the reaching of one’s goals—but rather in unexpected places replete with “untapped desires that have no necessary end.” He refers to such psychosexual energies—which desire certainly is—as “the poetics and politics of the perverse.” Putting theory into practice, Boone’s novel is steeped in perversity. So many sexual interruptions, not to mention the incest; Mary Jo can only feel sexual excitement with her brother Marky; Julien, we’re pretty sure, had a sexual relationship with his twin sister, Julia; Julia loves Enzio who also loves Julien. And so on. Newt mentions his mother’s sexual allure several times and learns at the end of the novel that her attacker was her former lover. Newt loves to watch and be watched, a perversion likely awakened when Zithra catches him masturbating. He feels as excited when Marky and Mary Jo watch him swim laps in a speedo as he does watching his sister from his bedroom window going down on her boyfriend by the tool shed. Indeed, even the language of Furnace is at times poetically perverse. For example, Newt remembers the summer of ‘63 as a time “when semen still smelled astonishingly fresh, an elixir of unfathomed potency.” Marky’s calf feels warm and “palpable” to the touch, and a penis is not just limp but in a “semi-tumescent somnolence.” Boone is a masterful writer—even his academic writing is beautiful—so it should come as no surprise to find linguistic artistry throughout the narrative that is both poetic and perverse.
You don’t have to be familiar with Great Expectations to enjoy Furnace Creek. Indeed, searching for and “expecting” nods to Dickens can, at times, interfere with the reading act. And let’s face it, the 60s is a much more entertaining period for time travel than the moors of Victorian England. Boone allows us to [re]experience the tempo and color of the 60s through textual detail that builds authenticity. While still living at home, Newt eats strawberry shortcake with cool whip, watches Gigi and Dr. Zhivago; when he moves to the east, he grows his hair long, wears love beads and bellbottoms, and watches as the SDS takes over the administration building at Harvard. Unlike Marky and to some extent Mary Jo, Newt doesn’t partake in political protest because he is afraid and doesn’t really care enough to get involved. He still holds tight to his fantasy of graduating from Harvard and marrying Mary Jo. However, the trajectory of college, marriage, family, country club is traditional, what parents and politicians do, i.e., no longer cool to the younger generation. As it turns out, being young during the late 60s contributes as much or more to Newt’s Bildungsroman as the money he is given to get an Ivy League education and be financially independent. Once Newt learns that both Samson and Marky are attracted to him sexually, have always been, the scales fall from his eyes, and he sees what he has long felt but has been too afraid to acknowledge.
This is a wonderful novel with psychological depth to match a period in American history that was both stormy and exhilarating. The 60s counterculture movement changed the way we see, think, and feel about everything, including homosexuality. It succeeded in prying open the closet door and allowing those who identify as gay to act on “the love that dare not speak its name.” The novel ends full circle with Newt living in his hometown once again but this time as a fully realized person. He has found peace with himself but remains open to the next chapter, without expectations.