“I’d been walking unnoticed in Robbie’s flattened path ever since. Those fourteen minutes stayed between us like a wall. Me on the side with the shadow. I didn’t have to think about him except when the debris of his destruction lobbed over and caught me in the face. We were two countries; no shared thoughts, languages, customs. We weren’t at all alike; we just happened to have been alive in this vast world for almost exactly the same amount of time.”
Additional Notes: I suggest the reading level be for high schoolers because of the subject matter, not the actual difficulty of the vocabulary.
A Brief Summary
Tristan has been living in his twin’s shadow since the moment they were born. Robbie’s birth had been dramatic, while Tristan was born without a bit of fuss. This sets the stage for the rest of their childhood. Robbie is the hockey star, the one everyone loves, the easy going guy; Tristan feels like he is the opposite in every way. Their parents do nothing to dispel this belief, showering Robbie with attention because he is a shoe-in for the NHL. Because of this Tristan grows to hate his twin. He is certain that they will never be close and the moment they graduate, Tristan is going to take off and finally be free of his brother’s long shadow.
But Robbie has a secret: he’s gay and he is terrified of what that means for his future NHL career. Anxiety and depression plague him until he tries to kill himself. Unwilling to risk Robbie’s career, their parents cover up the attempt and assign Tristan to be Robbie’s watchdog. The twins are forced into an uncomfortable situation of trying to survive their parents’ increasing paranoia and abuse while also trying to figure out how to be brothers again.
All of this comes to a head when Robbie disappears the night of the most important game of his high school career.
This is a hard read, folks, but an important one. I had to put this short book down several times while reading because a lot of it was familiar to me– namely growing up with a sibling who has a major mental illness and the shame and secrecy that comes when a family tries to hide it. This book examines how mental illness can hit anyone, regardless of how bright their future may be or how good their life currently is. This is an important message to teach younger people because so often people don’t understand what depression actually is.
This is also an excellent examination of how homophobic the hockey world is. While NHL teams don rainbow tape on their sticks or march in Pride parades, the language on the ice still echoes with hatred. There has yet to be an openly gay NHL player and there is definitely a reason why. It’s not because there are no gay players– even statistically speaking that is an impossibility. It’s because the male athletic world thrives on toxic masculinity, a masculinity that is both misogynistic and homophobic. This book is unflinching in looking at it. The author pulls no punches in her analysis of Robbie’s internalized hatred, of his team’s homophobic response once Robbie comes out, or of his chances of making it into the NHL once the scouts find out he is gay.
Jerkbait also plays with stereotypes and criticizes the assumptions of what a gay man “looks” like. Both the team the twins play for and the high school they attend assume that Tristan is the “gay” one. Tristan is quiet, not particularly athletic, writes fanfic, and loves theatre (especially musicals). And he is straight. Robbie is, at first glance, a typical jock and class clown. Robbie, once he has come out, even struggles with trying to reconcile his love of sports with being gay. Several of the characters are confronted with their assumptions about masculinity and the dangers of toxic masculinity. I think this is a good message to address in a YA book because too often young people (and even adults) wonder about their sexual identity and if they are gay/bi/trans *enough*. This also teaches straight readers that gay doesn’t look like anything. It simply is and each person’s experience is going to be different.
You Can Play, an organization that promotes queer acceptance in the sports world, gave this book its seal of approval and the author thanks them in her notes and mentions them briefly towards the end of the story. Part of me thinks the entire NHL should sit down and read this book and begin active discussions about how to make their teams more queer inclusive. Robbie’s fears are valid ones and it’s time for NHL to actually talk about it.
The Not So Good
This is not a happy story. The other books I have posted reviews for (Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda) do have dark beats within their narrative, but are happy overall. Simon in particular is light and funny. Jerkbait, however, at times edges over into the tragic queer trope. Robbie’s life is not an easy one. His parents are abusive and homophobic, his team shuns him and bullies him, he is raped, and he attempts suicide multiple times throughout the book.
The book does end on a hopeful note, but in some ways that hopeful note seems lackluster after the terror Robbie (and by extension Tristan) have been through. In particular, I found myself intensely angry at Robbie and Tristan’s parents and how quickly their abusive behavior is absolved because they suddenly accept Robbie and Tristan for who they are. The ending feels too neat, too packaged, with little in the way of realness. The final scenes leading up to the end, in which Robbie and Tristan are kidnapped, feel like a series of “what awful thing can happen next,” with an odd nod towards the supernatural when Tristan and Robbie discover they can communicate telepathically. (Twin powers, ACTIVATE!) In general, I found the last forty pages of the book strangely out of sync with the rest of it. Ultimately, I will be assigning this in my queer YA lit class, despite the lackluster ending, because the book overall does a good job talking about toxic masculinity, homophobia, and abuse and I do think it will lead to some interesting conversations about what works and doesn’t work within the narrative.
If you areinterested in reading more about sports and queer culture, check out these non-fiction books:
In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity by Eric Anderson
Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports by Cyd Zeigler
Cyd Zeigler, a renowned sports writer and GLAAD Media Award nominated journalist, began writing about LGBT sports issues in 1999. He has continued writing on the topic of LGBTQ acceptance in sports, including, most recently, in his newest publication, Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports.