Getting Off Clean – Timothy Murphy

The one thing that Eric Fitzpatrick wants is to escape–both from his family and the racially tense town in which he lives. The only son of an Italian-Irish family in a working class suburb of Boston, he intends to go away to college and leave his old life far bhind. But all his plans are set askew when he meets Brooks, a mysterious, wealthy, black student at a local prep school. As their relationship grows ever deeper and more complicated, Eric must come to terms not only with his family and community, bu with his warring ambitions and desires.

Two teenage boys: Eric Fitzpatrick – an Italian-Irish teen from a working-class family in Boston. And Brooks – a wealthy, black student at a local prep school. Living different lifestyles all of a sudden meet and things change for them and their emotions for each other, especially from Eric. Despite Eric’s wants and needs to leave his life of leaving the racially tense town, meeting Brooks changes everything in a span from September 1986 – April 1987.

Getting Off Clean is in fact an engrossing, literary coming of age/coming out story with much depth, where the love story is rather secondary to more serious themes such as white male privilege and the effects of prejudice.

By uncharacteristically (for its genre and time) bringing together a black and a white character, and switching expected social positions (the white character is poor, while the black one is rich), Murphy can highlight social racism to great effect. It is also interesting to note that there is a disabled character that features fairly prominently. Considering that the book was published in 1997, it feels incredibly “woke” and still very relevant to more current preoccupations around diversity. More much more recent “gay books” don’t even attempt to cover that sort of ground.

I glance over at him reading, and I think that an authentic member of the St. Banner’s intelligentsia has walked into the sub shop where I work, in the intellectually barren town of West Mendhem, Massachusetts—and what am I? I wrote a twenty-page term paper on fatalism versus determinism in the plays of Eugene O’Neill this past spring that Mrs. Bissett said was the best piece of writing she had seen in twenty-one years of teaching.

This story is told in the first person character of Eric. And as I was reading the story, I find that it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, race, unfortunately, still has a major factor for most communities. What’s even worse is that the gay issue makes it twice as worse. But throughout the novel, you start to picture how these two overcome every obstacle they come across from their families, community, and even themselves. Remember, it’s the late 80’s, and either coming out as or being gay was NOT something ever accepted when religion is still passionately strong within people’s being.

Their forbidden romance is bittersweet, with stolen moments together.

It feels cool and faintly powdery, and underneath his ridiculous cap, underneath the hair cut short on the back of his head, I can feel the contours of the base of his skull. It’s strange to me; it feels so naked, like if he could let me know what the base of his skull feels like, then nothing he can say to me from now on, no bitchery or artifice, can ever cut me again.

Eric is ambitious and conflicted about his new found desires. He has high dreams – to go to Yale and become a university graduate – something his family is unaccustomed to.

I’m going to make a list of everything I have to do, I tell myself. I even go as far as opening up a new notebook and writing “To Do: Academic Year 1986–87.” But I don’t write a thing, because my brain is humming like a crazy man’s. I think about how far over the line I stepped tonight, and what if anyone in this house could read my thoughts right now, and do private thoughts leak? Do they show through, the way Grandma says you can’t hide a sin, because it seeps through?

Brooks has something that Eric lacks. Confidence – backed by old money. And he loves Eric.

Then, as if I’ve just told him all this, he draws my hands away from myself and pulls them toward the center of the Formica tabletop and puts his own hands over them. And he says, “I’m filthy rich. And you, Eric Fitzpatrick, are going to Yale University, which is certainly more than I can say. And you are getting the holy hell out of here.”

“Thank you,” I say, like an idiot, and suddenly, looking at his hands clasped motionlessly over mine, I start to cry, and with that, it’s like everything’s mixed in—my home, my parents, my pregnant sister and my retarded sister, my brain-dead friends and good-for-shit hometown. It’s like they all come chasing up out of the pit of my stomach and I upchuck them all over the table, in front of him. And then I can’t believe it, I’m not crying, I’m sobbing, and I know I must sound like a choking fool.

Without giving away the ending… in my opinion, it was both bittersweet and satisfying at the same time for both Eric and Brooks. But that’s just my opinion.

I just stare and stare. I can’t speak, but I can’t look away. The last time we stood or lay close to each other, the last time we so much as regarded each other, unmediated by public appraisal or personal concealment, was in an earth-toned, anonymous hotel room in the seized-up middle of January. Here it is, months later, heat crowding the distance between us, and the torched fever rush of a lost autumn is flooding back upon me now—all the things he said, all the things we did, recapitulated in this moment. I’m so dizzy I can’t talk; the earth is breaking away in huge, ungainly plates just beyond the realm of us, and I’m wondering how I’ve gone so long without the earthly matter of him within my grasp—the face and limbs, the cedar smell and contemptuous tone, all the brittle, glittering atoms of him that encircled me in my terror and confusion and helpless, covetous rage. Did I encircle him? I wonder. Did I ever engulf him? Even now, in this moment, I don’t know.


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