No Lie, Mark Allan Gunnells' Coming-Of-Age Novel 'The Advantaged' Is A Masterful Read

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From Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses to Salinger's Holden Caulfield to the fantastical coming-of-age adventures of a certain Hogwarts wizard, the trials and tribulations of youth are a cornerstone of literary endeavors both fictional and autobiographical. Those awkward, exhilarating, often painful days where one learns who they are and seeks to blaze their own trail through life's uncertain jungle can yield the most compelling of dramas and retains a timeless allure for both authors and audiences alike. And why not? Who among us hasn't experienced the teenage travails of academia, that heady rush of first romance, the pleasure and pitfalls of newfound independence?

Better known for works of horror such as Dark Treats, The Cult of Ocasta, 324 Abercorn, 2B, and the forthcoming Lucid, Greenville, South Carolina-based writer Mark Allan Gunnells shifts genre gears to explore the perils of that youthful no-man's-land in his latest novel, Crossroad Press's The Advantaged. Subtitled as 'A Queer Drama of Love, Lies & Loss', the slice-of-life narrative revolves around Silas Granger, an aspiring writer and openly gay teen from Greenville's lower-income side who lives in a trailer park with his hardworking single father and attends Greenville Tech, the city's community college. Smart but painfully shy, socially anxious and bereft of friendship due to his tumultuous high school years, Silas dreams of attending Furman University, Greenville's more upscale center of higher learning, and passes his lonely spare hours walking the scenic campus. When he overhears a group of Furman students--boorish politico-in-training Gus, angry poet Paige, wannabe stand-up comedian Franco, scatterbrain Shelia, standoffish Philip and affable nice-guy Kris--discussing one of his favorite subjects, the works of Ray Bradbury, Silas unwittingly joins the conversation and allows their assumption that he's a fellow Furman undergraduate to go uncorrected.

It's this fallacy that serves as the axis upon which The Advantaged spins. Unaccustomed to equal acceptance by his peers, Silas continues his association with the group, never telling them of his non-Furman collegiate status for fear of rejection. As the weeks pass and he becomes not only a full-fledged member of the informal circle, but romantically entwined with Kris, Silas relies upon ever-more elaborate fibs to retain the appearance he's a Furman attendee. He memorizes the campus layout, researches the teaching staff, creates a fake schedule, yet the web of unintended deceit soon begins to take its emotional toll: Silas's juggling act corrodes his already fragile constitution, and the dry rot spreads as he lies to both his Greenville Tech classmate and unlikely new confidant, charming comic artist Finn, and, eventually, to his own father. Desperate to turn his self-inflicted real-life fiction into truth, Silas plans on switching his course load to Furman for the next school year, but can he keep the charade going that long, or will the house of cards he's constructed collapse on top of him?

The strengths in The Advantaged are endless; the prose is smooth and fast-moving, the dialogue zippy with 21st century Whedon-esque aplomb and a bevy of wink-and-nod pop culture references to not only Bradbury, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Twilight Zone, Cthulu, Dave McKean, Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and many more. Scenes crackle with wry, knowing wit (Silas' father, while talking about Beckett's classic Waiting For Godot: "A play about nothing. Was Kramer in it?"), yet the bountiful humor never distracts from the book's overriding serious tone, and Gunnells' impeccable wordcraft throughout is buttressed by an indisputably earnest and often moving poetic sensibility (Silas at one point ruminates about '...his fears that he would never achieve the dreams he harbored like wanted fugitives.'). But the main asset of this novel is its deeply realistic characterization. Despite the author's horror background, The Advantaged is a breath of fresh air precisely because it need not rely on the paranormal tropes so often utilized in modern-day Young- and New Adult fiction to support flagging reader interest. Every character is unveiled as a fully-realized, thoroughly human, three-dimensional figure, with their own distinctly individual flairs and faults. Hostile Philip, for example, seen early in the story as a possible rival for Kris's affection, is shown later to be understanding and surprisingly accepting, just as easy-going Kris, in a dark, potent scene of inner catharsis, reveals he wasn't always either of those things. Even Silas himself, in spite of a sweet and genuinely likable nature (the bond he shares with his father offers a much-appreciated antidote to the clichéd familial angst all too common in coming-of-age tales), isn't depicted in a strictly sympathetic light--at times he's calculated, manipulative and downright explosive when his double life nears exposure, and his more questionable qualities are something Gunnells never dodges or minimizes. Instead, the author exhibits deliberate skill to show Silas's evolution, from unconfident introverted loner to a group member and burgeoning boyfriend to show exactly how much he has to lose, and we in turn sympathize with his plight if not his methods. That emphasis on character extends also to the budding courtship between Silas and Kris; it's so believably drawn, their passions and feelings so profoundly universal they become unbound by mere labels and are relatable to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

Once untangled, the web of inadvertent lies Silas spins come attached to the notion that there are no bad people, only bad decisions, and how our individual reaction to any of life's myriad adversities rests in our outlook, our attitude and our willingness to embrace others for who they truly are. Overall, The Advantaged is masterfully rendered, funny, heart-wrenching and, most importantly, honest, and for those reasons I feel compelled to bestow it the maximum 5 (out of 5) of my Fang Scale. I tore through this book faster than any thus far in 2022. Take a bow, Mr. Gunnells. You've earned the accolades.

5.0 / 5.0