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Joey Nicci, a fifteen-year-old
wrestler who has recently transferred from an all-male Catholic school in
Newark to a suburban public high school in Little Falls, New Jersey, is the
protagonist in Jim Provenzanos debut novel, Pins. Joey embodies many of
the fears and distractions of adolescence: he observes himself and others
closely and obsesses about how he will be perceived by his peers, most
especially the other members of the wrestling team. He is younger and smaller than most of his teammates, but he is
also scrappy and determined and within weeks of becoming a Little Falls Colt,
he has won his first match and secured a place of esteem on the team. One of the significant complications for
Joey is that he knows he is gay and he has to consider how he can continue to
hide that fact in a world where he struggles to establish an identity. Further
complicating his situation is his strong attraction to Dink, a fellow
wrestler, who sends mixed messages about his interest in being friends with
Provenzanos novel has resonances
of Robert Cormiers well-known and often read The Chocolate War in its
maleness. Much of how Joey comes to
define himself at the new school is through his association with wrestling,
with its specific codes of masculine competition. Joeys initiation into the world of adolescence and high school
is complicated by the fact that he is gay.
Provenzano works hard to
make Joey the hero in this sprawling story that struggles to integrate too many
ideas and address too many issues, but he somehow maintains enough distance
from his good intentions to keep the reader guessing and to keep the pages
turning. Joeys family has moved from
Newark partially to ensure that their teenage son does not succumb to the
pressures of the urban scene. They want
him and his younger siblings, a brother, Mike, and a four-year-old sister,
Sophia, to have the advantages afforded to those who live on tree-lined
streets. That Joey manages to give in
to the pressure he feels from his fellow wrestling buddies to participate in
their growing penchant for misbehavior is part of the irony of the plot and
part of what creates the momentum of the novel.
Joey eventually ends up in a
situation that threatens his own life and the lives and futures of his
peers. The moment of grand conflict is
somewhat suspicious, mostly because the description of the incident is muddy
and confusing for the reader, but it is not surprising. Provenzano leaves a trail of hints that are
not difficult to interpret. That
tendency is, perhaps, a flaw in the writing.
Provenzano does succeed, however,
in creating dramatic moments for Joey that force him to confront his feelings
about himself as a gay teenager and about his responsibilities to his family,
his friends, and to his conscience.
Though the real action of this story comes late in the novel and though
it hovers in the realm of melodrama, the emotional core of Joeys reactions and
decisions seems authentic. He responds
with all the fierce volatility of any confused and cornered adolescent: he, by
turns, withdraws severely and lashes out against anyone who may be able to help
him manage and cope.
Provenzano does not shy away from
the real difficulties that gay teenagers face:
Joey is constantly aware of how his attraction to other boys and to men
is dangerous, both emotionally and physically.
His vulnerability in this regard is made even more poignant by setting
the novel in the world of wrestling, with its specific code of masculine
competition and its overt sexuality. Pins
is, in fact, quite a sexy book, both in terms of its frank portrayal of Joeys
attractions and in its description of his fantasized and actual relationships
with the other characters.
Though he may have chosen to edit
the novel more closely, Provenzano has delivered a compelling story about a gay
teenager who, as in any well-structured initiation story, confronts himself and
his environment and begins to find a way to integrate the complications he
© 2002 Toby Emert
Toby Emert is currently
finishing up a doctorate in Education at the University of Virginia. He has
worked as a freelance journalist, a classroom teacher, a counselor, and a director
in offices, classrooms, and on stages in several major US cities.