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From the best-selling author of How To Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee's award-winning debut is "One of the great queer novels . . . of our time."—Brandon Taylor, GQ

Twelve-year-old Fee is a shy Korean-American boy growing up in Maine whose powerful soprano voice wins him a place as section leader of the first sopranos in his local boys choir. But when, on a retreat, Fee discovers how the director treats the boys he makes section leader, he is so ashamed, he says nothing of the abuse, not even when Peter, Fee’s best friend, is in line to be next. The director is eventually arrested, and Fee tries to forgive himself for his silence. But when Peter takes his own life, Fee blames only himself.

Years later, after he has carefully pieced a new life together, Fee takes a job at a private school near his hometown. There he meets a young student, Arden, who, to his shock, is the picture of Peter—and the son of his old choir director.

Told with “the force of a dream and the heft of a life” (Annie Dillard), this is a haunting, lyrically written debut novel that marked Chee “as a major talent whose career will bear watching” (Publisher’s Weekly).

ISBN-13: 9780544916128

Media Type: Paperback(Reissue)

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication Date: 11-01-2016

Pages: 240

Product Dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

ALEXANDER CHEE is the best-selling author of the novels The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh, and the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. He is a contributing editor at the New Republic, and an editor at large at Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The Best American Essays 2016, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, T Magazine, Slate, Vulture, among others. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. He is an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I AUDITION FOR the Pine State Boys Chorus on an afternoon at the end of November in the year I am twelve years old. The audition, I recall, is my own idea. In a gray-stone cathedral's practice room, somewhere near Longfellow Square in Portland, Maine, I sing, for a square-headed, owlish man, a series of scales that he plunks out on the piano, his pink fingers playful over the black and white keys.

It's good, he says. Your voice. You've got a terrific range.

On a clipboard next to him, a list of names. Some have been checked off. The afternoon sunlight in the room lights stained-glass windows of Bible scenes I can't recognize, due to inattentiveness in church. The light casts them as brilliant colors on the bare wall opposite me.

When I sing, I feel that I am like the wall is now. This is why I have come.

Do you know any songs, he asks. He looks down toward me as if I might run from the room.

Christmas songs, I say.

He unfolds some music and hands it to me.

I sing Silent Night. O Come Let Us Adore Him. Good King Wenceslas. Angels We Have Heard on High. That one's my favorite, I say, when I am done. I've never heard my voice alone with a piano before. The quiet that follows, when I stop singing, seems new, too.

Rhythm, too, he says.

My science class has taught me that breathing turns the air inside you to a carbon, a little different from smoke, but a little like it. We have this in common with flames. We are just slower. I take a breath, waiting. Impatient.

I am looking for boys just like you, he says, finally, and checks my name off the list.

I leave with the folder of sheet music for the first rehearsal, given a seat in the choir right away. In the car on the way home I can't wait to start. I remember the director's odd soft handshake. I'm Eric, he'd said. But there's another Eric in the choir. So I am Big Eric, and he's the little one.

Did you hear me, my mother says right then, as she drives through the early-evening traffic on the bridge between Portland and Cape Elizabeth.

No, I tell her. I didn't.

In Korea, my grandfather tells me when we get home, everyone knows all the songs. Sometimes, like in a musical, everyone starts singing. He makes Korea sound like a place made from happy families and wisdom, and it makes me wonder why he's here, in Maine.

The next day the Korean American Friendship Association of Maine arrives for a kimchee-making party. Here in Cape Elizabeth, a town still half full of farms, we live on several acres that overlook the marsh at the town's edge. Thirteen families arrive and fill the yard with their cars. Their dark-haired children coming running and yelling for me. Aphi-as, Aphi-as, they yell. Their parents divide, the mothers into my grandmother's kitchen, the fathers into the garage. The mothers chop cabbage in the kitchen, mince peppers and fish. The fathers take beers and shovels and head to dig the hole where the giant barrels of kimchee will sit.

My grandfather and grandmother live in what was once a barn, converted for them into an apartment and connected to our house by a breezeway, where my father stores firewood. I've hidden here. My grandparents moved here from Korea a few years before. There was some turmoil, my father says of it, when people ask. He redid the farmhouse for them himself with these men who are headed to shovel the hole. My mother needs her own kitchen, my father had told my mother, who laughed. No, really.

Korea is in trouble, my grandfather will say. Every now and then, he will follow it by saying, Maine, Maine is okay. Many fat people. But okay. My grandmother will say only, I am here for my grandchildren.

The other children frighten me a little. I can't speak Korean, my father's decision, and so I can't understand them much of the time. How you like funny-funny, round-eyes, they ask me and my brother and sister, whenever they play a joke on me. My brother Ted and sister Sam, both younger, find them funny. While they distract themselves with my Monopoly games, I slip out the back to where the men are digging.

Look, my grandfather says, chuckling. Here's fox. And he picks me up. His strength surprises me, and he sets me down. Fox dig hole, look.

The other men talk in Korean around us, including my father, and I can tell they haven't heard him. English falls off their ears. I sit and watch them and wait for the hole to appear.

I meet Peter in the first rehearsal I attend. The other boys and I do not talk to each other beforehand, but we set our voices side by side as if it were no matter at all. In this practice chapel, the twenty of us sit in metal chairs that ring as we sing through the first part of an early-December night. Some boys I recognize from my town, the others are unfamiliar. The one beside me looks up at me now and then as we sing, making little faces. His whiteblond hair is like candle flame.

Almost all of these boys are blond. Which is to say, I am the one who isn't.

Boys, Big Eric, the director, says. Please say hello to our newest members. Aphias Zhe, Peter O'Hanlon. And at his name, the blond boy next to me looks up at me and says, You're new too?

Are you Chinese? another boy asks.

No, I say. Korean. Half. Saying it always makes me feel split down the middle. Like a cow diagrammed for her sides of beef.

I'm part Indian, Peter offers.

The rehearsal continues. At the end we wait on the curb for our parents to come and pick us up. Do you want some, Peter says, and holds out a can of chewing tobacco.

No, thanks, I say. He burps red spit into the street.

Come over and ride bikes, he says.

Okay, I say.

He walks and I feel the air come off him toward me, wherever we are. His sounds reach me wherever I am, not the only sounds I can hear, but the first ones: they trample all the others. My mother calls him a towhead blond, the word, apparently, for that kind of hair, so pale, so bright, it seems to be what sunshine reminds you of.

What do you want of him, I ask myself. I tell myself, to walk inside him and never leave. For him to be the house of me. Below, a list from my notebook at school:

Likes smoking and chew
Find out: What is New Model Army, Gang of Four, DOA
Peter, Peter, Fire-eater, kissed the girls, felt like a heater
Hates his sister, loves mine
Wants to never go home again, always: Why?

To save time for reading, I've taught myself to walk and read at the same time. My father doesn't want me to learn Korean, English only, he says, and so at school I walk the halls reading from the Webster's Dictionary for several weeks. Around me the other kids pass in a rush of winking colors and pillowed sounds. I can't hear anything they say to me when I read. I can only hear inside me, a voice, reading to me from the book, lower than my own. This voice hints at directions, possibilities, even as it presses forward, inexorable, to the next word in line. Defect, Defection, Defective. Define. Definition. Definitive. On the next page, I peek. Demon.

What the hell is that, Zach asks, when he sees me in the cafeteria at lunch. He is a choir member in my same class, a lacrosse player with a deer's walk who stayed back a year. He is my class but older, and he likes me for reasons I don't yet understand.

I'm preparing for a spelling bee, I lie.

Tow, it turns out, is what is beaten off the harvested flax. Transparent. Light passes through it, barely. Tow, Towhead. Peter.

By the time the spring comes five months later, I am the section leader of the first sopranos. When I am given this job, Big Eric tells me how my voice is to lead the others. Now he watches me in rehearsals as I watch him. I sing and follow Big Eric's hand as it bobs in the air, showing us the silent percussion to our songs. If I have to look at his eyes, I look at the reflections in the little rims of his gold-framed glasses. I do not think he is completely fooled by this. I feel as if he can see into my throat, to the place just below where my voice starts, where, as he says, the breath resides.

As my voice follows the scales while we warm up and we align our voices around the piano's tone like muscles on a bone, I feel larger. As if the room belonged to the voices that filled it in the way my throat belongs to my voice. The top notes remain for only me and Peter. All the other boys cannot go up this high, high A over high C. Big Eric looks first at Peter and then at me as we hold this note. The sound wavers only when we alternate taking breaths, and then only faintly. Peter barely contains a smile at me that might distort the vowel coming out of him. He seems too small to generate the force he does. His body barely fits around his voice, his mouth a gate to another dimension made up of these pure notes.

Eric touches the next key up. B. We rise together.

Afterward, as the boys prepare to leave rehearsal, running and yelling as they put on their coats, Big Eric approaches Peter and I where we stand. You should have a solo, I think, he says to Peter, at which Peter laughs. A descant, he says.

The descant is a melody sung by a soloist in counterpoint to the melody sung by the sopranos. A single voice above all the others, stepping its way through by means of lyric and syncopation, one part song, one part refrain. The chorus sings at the same time as the descant singer. I want the descant. I know I am good enough. My voice, my range. I learn faster. But I see immediately then, what Big Eric wants. The blond hair at the top of the riser, imagine him singing. You would want to touch what you heard, hold it to your face.

In the car pool with Peter, on our way back from choir rehearsal, I try to read and not look only at him. The other boys in the car cluck and shove at each other, ask loud questions about things that have just happened at school. The mother driving us regards the traffic ahead. On the pages in front of me, the words dissolve a bit, the letters thinning until I can see, on the other side of them, like spying through a wire fence, the pictures of Peter I have collected inside me: Peter laughing as he falls on the ice at Lake Sebago, Peter walking through his dark house, his dog fluttering at his leg, Peter asleep in my basement, gripping the edge of his sleeping bag as if he were, in his dream, trying to escape it. Occasionally I look up, and the real Peter flares beside me. I try to place the smell of him. He smells of carnations and, very faintly, cigarette smoke. Like a corsage someone left in a bar. I am in love with you, I think then. That's what this is.

Too bad you didn't get the descant, he says.

It's yours, I say. You're better for it. There isn't anyone else.

I don't care if I have it. Big deal. Extra rehearsals.

I don't mind, I say. And I won't. There's probably something for me later.

A book I had with me for one week was about Russian psychics spontaneously combusting into flame. The author thought it mysterious, the sudden acceleration of the body's heat to a temperature that would sear bone. This did not mystify me then. The person writing had never met Peter.

Chapter Two

THE SUN ON the first day of the section-leader camping trip with Big Eric is a shiny white smear in the center of a white sky. There's four of us: me, Zach from the altos, Little Eric from the second sopranos, and Big Eric. We hike for hours that first day and then find a rock pool to swim in at some distance from the trail. We decide to camp here and pitch our tent, first. Then we take off our clothes, Big Eric first, and he removes all of his and stands, looking at us, waiting. Swimming nude, he says, is one of God's greatest gifts to us.

Zach shrugs. I like it. His clothes come off, then Little Eric, then me.

Big Eric takes out his camera then.

Krick. The camera shutter flicks open-shut.

Little Eric perches on the edge of the rock pool, sylphlike, naked. His blond wavy hair frames his profile, an elegant twelve-year-old Swede. Big Eric holds his camera across his broad hairy chest. He aims at Little Eric and shoots. Krick. Slower, that time, his finger lingers at the sight in the frame. Zach and I stand to the side, crouch occasionally in a pool here at the stream, naked also, the summer air like a wet towel on my back.

That's great, he says to Little Eric. You look like a faun.

I sink myself under the water and expel the air from my lungs to make myself heavy, to fall quickly to the bottom of the deep pool. It's a diver's trick my oceanographer father taught me. I keep enough air so I can lie flat on the smooth stones of the bottom and look up, through the glossy, pearled surface of the water, to the sky.

The currents spill softly around me. The water has the milky freshwater taste of having come through granite, which is why it is so clear here. The sun above turns flat and silver like a dropped coin.

I stand and shove and a dolphin kick brings me to the surface, where I gasp. Little Eric and Big Eric continue. Click. I dive down again, drifting.

Zach punctures the pool in a jackknife and water careens in sheets. I lift my head from the water to see the Erics disturbed. Little Eric is laughing, and Big Eric says, Don't you worry, You're next.

Later, we build a fire and cook dinners wrapped in tinfoil: hot dogs, potatoes, corn on the cob. I am sunburned again and Zach rubs a lotion on my back for me. There is a quiet in which I pretend I don't know what all of this means, Big Eric's talks on the drive up here about libertarianism, nudism, child rights. And then I don't pretend. The mosquito-screen zipper sizzles shut.

In the tent at night his body is huge. Covered in hair. His penis looks comical, enormous, a cartoon. His age renders him like another gender, or a species apart from us. Our bodies are small, bones are small. Of the three of us boys, I am the only one with a little bit of hair swirled at the base of my penis. I feel half him, half them. Zach and Little Eric reach out fingers toward me, and touch the hair.

In the morning the sky lights an hour before the sun shows and we wash in the pool with Dr. Bronner's, check our food for raccoon assaults, make a fast breakfast. Big Eric makes coffee and I ask for some. At some point I remember: the Erics huddled in a sleeping bag, like hideously mismatched twins. Zach and I. And then a switch, Little Eric slipping inside with me, Zach gone over. I didn't think I would like kissing so much, Little Eric giggles.

And then the trees, the prismatic air presses on everything that needs it here on the earth, the sun fires itself on the stream and spreads light through the underbrush where we are camped, spangling our faces. Vertigo. The night before scatters away. I press the hot coffee to my face. I look at my face in his shaving mirror and don't recognize myself. My hair is streaking from the sun. My pupils are huge. I want to say, Take me apart. Leave me here for dead, if you can.

Zach gets out of the tent and stands in front of me and when I meet his eyes he winks. He puts a finger on my lips and smiles. Hey, he says. Nice tan.

Too bad we can't hike nude, Big Eric says to me, as he stands, his camera in hand. Zrrick. The hideous slide forward of film. He slides into his shorts and shirt reluctantly.

Chapter Three

JULY. TWO WEEKS before camp, I am at Peter's house watching television. His mother and father are gone to work. He lives in South Portland, next door to my town, Cape Elizabeth, the town of a rival swim team. We rode our bikes to the beach this morning and ran in the ocean with his dog, Peg, for hours. Now we are sunburned. I am brown and red like a rose cane and when I pull down my shorts I see a band of white skin that sits there around my hips like reflected light. Peter is red all over and now lies on the couch, covered in Milk of Magnesia that his mother applied before leaving. We are watching television now. I want to tell him, to warn him not to be alone with Big Eric. What that means. But I don't.

Later, the sun sets. We wrestle on the couch. My mother is coming to pick me up, as I can't ride my bicycle home in the dark. I have Peter trapped on the couch, my elbow across his chest, as he jabs his knees into my ribs repeatedly. His mother is in the kitchen, his father is still not home. I want to kiss him. I want to not want to kiss him. His face is red from laughing and his sunburn. As I pound his chest a last time, I tell myself, Not possible. When I finally let him up I move to the other side of the couch and we catch our breaths. You suck, he says, laughing. You suck so bad. I slap his hot face and he laughs harder and I pin him back to the couch again.

I leave without telling him, afraid all the way back home in my mother's car that it leaks out of me, this desire I have, like the fungi that grow in Peter's yard, puffing out little clouds when you crunch them with your feet.

You have freckles, my mother says at home. Angel kisses. They sure love you a lot.

In the bathroom I kick off my swimsuit from where I lie on my sunburned back against the cool tiles of the floor, One, two, three. The door is closed and locked and after a while my mother knocks. Aphias. Open the door.

I say nothing because that is what nothing says. I am nothing, a o, an outline around a hole.

Aphias. You are worrying me. Dinner's going to be ready soon. If you aren't downstairs for it, I'm going to call your grandfather and father to come and get you.

Time passes. Eventually, something passes through me and I get up and pull on my suit. I close the bathroom door behind me.

It's still daylight and I find my mother in the yard. Hey there, she says. She is squatting over a plant. Poppies, she says. After they bloom, they die back. You can't see them. I run a finger over the fuzzy leaves, the yard-long stems. Now I know what I want to be when I grow up.

The difference between a remainder and a reminder is an A, which stands for Aphias, my name, and the letter slips in and out like a cartridge in a rifle.

Excerpted from Edinburgh by Alexander Chee. Copyright © 2001 by Alexander Chee. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.