To look at the cover of Pop Salvation is to understand the book.
With its garish pink and yellow scheme, half-toned punk rocker and giant sans-serif lettering, the cover works like the writing it contains: It’s obvious, but pleasantly so. The conceptual artifice is nothing if not transparent.
The first novel from writer Lance Reynald, Pop Salvation is about a teenage boy, Caleb Watson, figuring himself out in the high-power, low-emotion world of 1980s Washington, D.C., prep schools.
At the story’s start he seems to have everything a teenager doesn’t want. He’s new in school, with a lilting Southern accent. He’s shy and a bit effeminate. Most importantly, he’s smart, a quality often detrimental to middle school popularity. When Caleb has no friends, he finds one in the art (and myth) of Andy Warhol.
This, appropriately, is the thinker’s plan of the story: explaining how Caleb models himself after the famous pop artist, both physically and intellectually. The narrator, an older Caleb, communicates in the voice of a memoirist—he tells the story while slowly unraveling just exactly what it all meant.
As the book winds through Caleb’s adolescence, we see him slowly collect friends, always experimenting with his Warholian ambitions. First, there’s Aaron, another school outcast, who, it’s fairly obvious from the beginning, acts as a muse for Caleb’s affection and lust. Reynald skillfully writes this complex relationship.
While it’s clear both boys understand that their thoughts are different from what might be “usual,” they don’t have the words or the will to put it all together. In short, they’re confused, but the author is not. The characterization here feels vibrant and real.
After Caleb and Aaron move to a high school for students interested in the arts, they befriend and bond with Sonia. She’s a precocious firebrand—and eagerly pushes Caleb’s emergent foppish attitude. From there, Caleb and his friends experiment with sex, drugs and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Throughout it all, Warhol looms constantly as the lens for the main character’s life, proving both his savior and his downfall.
Pop Salvation is a gay coming-of-age tale that hits the familiar themes of the genre: getting pushed out of the family, finding a replacement with a band of outcasts, turmoil and drug-destruction on the streets, hustling and, finally, an acceptance of true identity. What sets this book apart, and makes it worth a read, is the author’s insistence on explaining how our cultural icons can mold our behaviors as humans.
Reynald’s writing also helps. It is sprightly and easy to read. You’ll get through the book quickly. And though he tends to pound certain thematic points home over and over again—the artist-muse relationship, the “otherness” feeling of homosexual attraction—the thinking involved is crystal clear. It helps that his characters are, even at their worst, visions of enduring humanity.
I suppose, then, that the weakness of Pop Salvation is evident. It is a less-than-complex examination of a deeply complex issue, only marginally above the quality of similarly themed teen lit. That’s one of the reasons its 242 pages read so fast. There are insights to be had with these words, but they are thin. (This may, in part, be due to the cultural subjects studied. It’s not exactly hard to figure out a gay adolescent as a Warhol or Rocky Horror aficionado.)
Which gets me back to the cover. Sometimes obvious and simple things are fine, like a borrowed Sex Pistols aesthetic for a book set in the ’80s. Of course, that’s what we call faint praise. Pop Salvation is everything it seems to be, and nothing more.