Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the mid-1960s, Common Sons not only anticipates the coming gay revolution, but delineates its fields of battle in churches, schools and society, pitting fathers against sons, straight teens against gay teens, and self-hatred against self-respect.
From the opening scene (where a reckless bout of drinking at a dance ends in a very public kiss between two teenage boys), the citizens of the small town of Common, New Mexico, become aware of the homosexuality in their midst.
The two boys are unable to deal with their struggle in private as the story of their public kiss spreads through the small town. Some seek to destroy the relationship between the two boys, while others seek to destroy the two boys themselves.
Common Sons is a moving tale of self-discovery, love and finding the courage to come out and come to grips with truth in the face of hatred and adversity.
Review by Gerry Burnie
Common Sons is the first of the “Common threads in the life” series set in the fictional town of Common, New Mexico, and for those not acquainted with this series it is the recommended place to start.
It is a tale of two teenage boys, Joel and Tom, growing up in the small, dusty town of Common, New Mexico. They do the usual things like cruising the main street in Joel’s pickup, and eating hamburgers at the A & W, but there are some fundamental differences between them. Joel is a farmer’s son with a pragmatic way of looking at things, and Tom is a Baptist minister’s son with only a biblical view of reality. They are also in love with one another although, at first neither one of them realizes this.
Donaghe has also done a superb job of emphasizing the oppressive atmosphere in which their love is destined to bloom, i.e., the burdensome heat, the howling sand storms, and the relentless boredom of Common itself. Add to this a cast of narrow-minded bigots, sneering bimbos, and Tom’s fire-and-brimstone breathing father, and the stage is set for an adventure in human endurance.
The catalyst is an ill-advised, but quite innocent kiss between the two boys at a Saturday night dance—read ‘a typical coming together of teenage testosterone and beer.’ Joel and Tom also get around to the main event in the pick-up truck, the first such experience for both of them, and in the cold light of dawn they each reflect on it from their different perspectives.
Being the more pragmatic of the two, Joel soon decides that it is Tom he wants; however, Tom has a more difficult time of it. For one thing his preacher father rules him and the household with a fundamentalist zeal that is absolute, and Tom lives in fear of his father’s wrath. Tom is also well steeped in the usual fundamentalist jargon, i.e. “Sins of the flesh,” “reprobate mind,” and “unnatural lusts.” Upon meeting Joel, however, he begins to question his father, the Bible, and his own self-doubts. Also, Joel teaches him the true meaning of love, self-respect, and friendship.
At the same time Joel and Tom must cope with the peculiar form of homophobia that inhabits small places like Common—especially in the 1960s—and Kenneth Stroud in particular. He is the town’s redneck bad boy who has had bad blood for Joel since they were children. Another bigot is Paul Romaine, one of the church’s disciples with latent homosexual leanings of his own, and together these two set out to publicly humiliate and destroy Joel and Tom.
The rest of the plot I will leave for readers to discover for themselves; however I will comment on some of the admirable points that the author has incorporated into the story.
For example, the author has approached the topic of ‘coming out’ with sensitivity, insight, and a remarkable degree of realism. Those of us who came out in the 1960s, especially in insular communities like Common—or Pefferlaw, Ontario, for that matter—can attest to how well he has captured the alienation that Joel and Tom experience when they realize that they are ‘different.’ We can also attest to the delight that others took in pointing this out to us.
Donaghe has also given us an insight into the dark ages of psychology, i.e. when homosexuality was considered a mental illness or a ‘deviation,’ at best. The greater part of society would now regard this as “quackery,” but it did exist along with fundamentalist, religious dogma.
Unfortunately Religious fundamentalism still exists, in spite of the ‘defrocking’ of many of its outspoken proponents, but it is hoped that fewer people are listening.
Having said all that Common Sons is an inspirational read, and highly recommended for anyone coming out—young or old.