Thursday, November 3, 2016

One Man Guy, by Michael Barakiva

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Michael Barakiva’s debut novel is a sweet romantic comedy grounded in strong family values.

When fourteen-year-old Alek Khederian is told by his parents that he has to attend summer school to improve his grades, he’s not impressed. Not only will he have to spend more time at school, he’s going to have to miss out on the family’s annual summer holiday. To his shock and disbelief the family, including his older brother Nik, are simply going without him. Alek knows there’s no use fighting with his parents. They are Armenian-American, solidly middle-class, reasonably strict and strongly believe in a good education. They want the best for their boy.

When Alek starts attending the summer classes, something interesting happens. He’s thrown together with Nathan, one of the school’s cool kids, responsible for a famous cafeteria food fight that has now passed into legend. A little older than Alek, Nathan is the sort of guy Alek could only dream about hanging out with. As the two develop a friendship, Ethan becomes a bit of a bad influence on Alek, the always dutiful son. He manages to get Alek to cut class and spend a whole day in New York. During this trip, as the two hustle a free train trip, Alek learns that Ethan is gay. This creates all sorts of emotional complications for Alek. Does he feel more than just friendship for Ethan? What would his Armenian parents think if he came out as gay?

What I loved most about One Man Guy was how grounded and real it was. The novel is essentially a portrait of a loving and close family that has unique problems and concerns, like all families. The ethnicity of Alek’s family in itself hangs quite heavily in the background, contributing to the family’s collective psychology. For the reader who doesn’t know much about the history of the Armenian people, they were the victims of one of the twentieth century’s worst crimes against humanity. It is estimated that about a million and a half Armenians were murdered by the Turkish government between 1915-1916. Alek’s family has photos of the family from that period, most of them victims of genocide.

That sounds like heavy stuff for a Young Adult novel, but Barakiva does an excellent job of balancing out the family’s history against the book’s main plot of two young boy’s negotiating school, friendship and sexuality. One Man Guy is essentially a sweet romantic comedy (Alek’s kooky friend Becky provides many of the gags) with a firm moral grounding in family values such as trust, honesty, loyalty and belonging.

Neatly plotted, with characters that are well rounded and convincing, One Man Guy is a sure winner.

One Man Guy, by Michael Barakiva. Published by St Martin's Press. ISBN: 9781250073570 RRP:$16.99 

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