The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy

By Robert Leleux

St. Martin's. 288 pp. $23.95


Reviewed by Rita Giordano


In the opening pages of his new memoir, Robert Leleux writes about the fateful day he and his mother, the flamboyant Jessica, returned home to the family's East Texas horse ranch from one of their weekly pilgrimages to the Houston Neiman Marcus.

The then-teenage Leleux, mouth still full of Dairy Queen burger, finds the letter from his father, stating he is leaving them. He hands it to his mother, still wearing her Jackie O sunglasses, who reads it slowly, semi-collapsed in a chair. Finally, she speaks.

"She signaled with the letter to the shopping bags beside the front door," Leleux writes, "their tissue paper poking up like dorsal fins: 'All that goes back tomorrow.' "

So begins

The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy

, the utterly beguiling book-length debut by a young writer with voice enough for three boys. It is a distinctively Southern voice, and the book is a gay coming-of-age story. For both reasons, it may remind some of Kevin Sessums' masterful memoir

Mississippi Sissy

.

But readers will be missing out if they assume they've been there, read that. The books are very different, each worthy on its own merits. Sessums' memoir is darker, heartbreaking and ultimately brave. It is also the work of a more mature man writing about his youth.

Leleux's book wears its heart on its sleeve. It is unapologetically witty, irreverent, a romp on paper that no doubt reads much funnier than it felt to live. Leleux, who teaches creative writing in the New York public school system, tells you as much up front.

"After all, how does the old song go?

A hat's not a hat till it's tilted,"

he writes in a note to his readers.

In

Memoirs

, the writer finds love with the man who is still his partner and he realizes he is gay. Which comes as no surprise to his mother:

" 'How could you be my child and

not

be gay? Women like me

always

have gay children. Cher, Lana Turner, Queen Elizabeth. My God, look at Queen Elizabeth.' "

In many ways, Leleux's mother is his book. He's pretty upfront that about, too.

"My mother is my movie star and my football hero, and nothing feels impossible when she charges forth, mink coat abristle," he wrote in his acknowledgments - which, by the way, are actually worth reading.

Leleux's mother comes across as one of those larger-than-life characters, and if she actually said even half the lines her son credits to her, she should be thinking about writing her own book.

Not too long after Leleux's father leaves them, Leleux and his mother find themselves pretty near broke, credit cards maxed out, resorting to returning past purchases for income. So Mother, as Leleux calls her, embarks on an all-out campaign to snag a wealthy husband. (In the case of Leleux's father, his parents had the wealth, not him. The ranch belongs to them.)

Leleux chronicles her cosmetic surgery mishaps, questionable partner choice, and even more dubious hair treatments. As entertaining, sometimes morbidly so, as this is, Leleux doesn't go for the cheap laugh at his mother's expense. There's something grand about her, even in folly. And besides, ultimately her plan succeeds.

Although Leleux calls his book a memoir, it probably is best termed, as one reviewer suggested, a comic novel. The author tells us the story is "essentially" true to his experience, but it is shot through a humorous, forgiving lens. As for the quotations, few people are this consistently clever, and, besides, most people don't go around tape-recording or taking notes on their own lives for the sake of later accuracy. And other than his dad's leaving and some dead-end adolescent employment, Leleux's young life seems to border on the charmed.

My feeling is: So what? Leleux doesn't claim to be striving for journalism.

The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy

is a delightful read that plays to your heart and leaves you with a smile - not to mention some killer lines.

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.