Guy In Real Life is a contemporary standalone novel by Steve Brezenoff. It chronicles a few weeks in the lives of two Minnesotan teens, Lesh and Svetlana, a sophomore and a senior respectively. The book straddles several complicated thematic issues very well. I was most impressed by this.
However, I have a caveat before I get any further into this review – I had a few stutter stops reading this book. Frankly, I thought that I would have to put it aside. There is a large amount of homophobic, pejorative comments in the book from several of the side characters, all of them Lesh’s closest friends. It made me initially suspect of him. I don’t normally finish a book with this amount of hate speech. I find it to be crude, insensitive, and personally very offensive. My usual approach to this level of language is to put down the book out of sheer protest. But I decided to give the book a chance to explain itself. I realized (and hoped) that Brezenoff must be going somewhere with the sheer volume of hate speech he was writing. Eventually, the bigotry forms a message that is solid, poignant, and underscores many of the themes superbly. What Brezenoff says he says very well. I am glad that I finished the book.
To that end, the review.
One night just before school begins, Lesh and Greg go to a metal show at a bar. Lesh has a few drinks too many and ventures home wasted when a girl crashes into him on her bike. The girl is Svetlana; a gorgeous, ethereal, and sweetly swearing girl who rides off immediately. Lesh manages to get to safety and sleeps it off only to have his parents promptly ground him the next day.
Now, stuck in his room for weeks, Greg, Lesh’s closest friend, convinces him to download a MMORPG and create a character to fill the time. Lesh turns his nose up at this until the first few days of school when a scheduling nightmare separates him from his friends. Now alone, Svetlana sits with him in the cafeteria to avoid an old acquaintance. This action breaks some unspoken social barrier between the Metal-heads and Svetlana’s geekier group of friends. Svetlana is intellectual and dedicated, her parents obviously well off. Lesh’s parents struggle to make ends meet and he feels inferior around her until she shares her secrets with him – She spends time in a school gaming club. She enjoys drawing fantasy creatures and creating scenarios as a dungeon master.
The two grow closer with each day and Lesh becomes fascinated with her. Instead of telling her of his developing feelings he creates an avatar of her in the game. As Lesh’s affection for Svetlana grows so does his love of the game and of Svvetlana; the Elven priestess character that he spends most nights with. He keeps the secret from her as well as his own group of friends, hiding many things that he knows his friends will not understand, nor can he articulate properly. He knows that he shouldn’t be gaming as a girl, but he cannot bring himself to stop anymore than he can bring himself to tell Svetlana (with one V) of his growing feelings.
Guy In Real Life has so many things going for it. In some parts it reads like satire, poking fun at Minnesotan life and teenager ennui in general. It also highlights much of the gaming culture; of the inherent sexism and homophobia both present in small towns and faceless online communities. Amidst all that is a sweet and tender story of identity, first love, and questionable self-worth. It’s a great coming of age story over a short, tumultuous amount of time.
Lesh is a great everyman character. He’s not special and he’s not brilliant. He is blessedly ordinary and wonderfully normal. His self-esteem issues manifest in many ways; things I didn’t see coming. I appreciate that Brezenoff hints at more things with Lesh that are never said. It always keeps a reader guessing. Svetlana is the wonder-girl of the novel. She embroiders clothing, draws with impeccable skill, listens to classical music, and looks like a goddess. She is a dream to him; a perfection he feels he can never achieve, nor attain. It’s no wonder that he feels he cannot possible measure up to her. Lesh is 16 and defined by his parents and his peers. He hasn’t carved out a real identity yet. Svetlana is older and doesn’t let anyone define her… Not even Lesh.
Truth be told, there’s a bit of a rushed ending to the novel. I wanted a bit more, but there it is. As much as I loved this novel the ending was unsatisfying. There are also long passages of gaming story told from the POV of both Svetlana and Lesh’s avatars. These became a bit much by the end of the book. However, reading them foreshadows a few terrific plot twists, so do not skip them. The story within the story does amount to something powerful. It’s just a bit overdone.
Guy In Real Life is not at all what I expected. If you are looking for a quirky, out of the ordinary YA novel, this is perfect for you. It’s completely unique and singularly original. I enjoyed it. Very much.
4 out of 5 stars.
– Follow the Reader –