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"A descriptive writer of the Ernest Hemingway model - terse, stripped down, and to the point." - Lambda Book Report

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Sharp PINS

What starts off as yet another "coming-of-age" tale of gay youth in suburbia takes a dramatic turn and careens into a full-fledged miracle of writing. PINS seduces the reader into thinking that sex is the only thing on its mind. By the time Provenzano is through with his story, however, some universal truths have been examined and harshly displayed.

Joey is an Italian Catholic 15-year-old who has moved with his parents from the mean streets of Newark to the suburbs of New Jersey. In an effort to fit in with the rest of the world, Joey joins the high school varsity wrestling team, where he finds a new group of friends. One friend, Dink, especially interests Joey. Another member of the squad, Anthony, reveals to Joey that he is gay, but Anthony’s whining nature is off-putting to Joey.

Just as Joey and Dink fall into each other’s arms, Provenzano’s plot switches gears. Violence and murder erupt. Lives are torn apart. The relative safety of suburbia is questioned. Family, religion and God are all put to the test. Guilt weighs heavily on Joey’s wrestling shoulders, something he can’t shrug off. Joey’s descent from "good boy" to "troubled youth" is astutely realized in Provenzano’s writing.

Finally the author takes readers on the road to redemption. Joey and Dink’s relationship might never be the same, but that could also be said of the reader who has grown to know and care about some very realistic characters drawn mercifully without halos or happy endings.

- Douglas A. Mendini, The New York Blade

Appealing Tale

PINS takes Dan Woog's earlier "Jocks" theme into the novel form. Provenzano's coming of age tale should appeal to younger gays, but even I, at 40, found it entertaining and a helpful guide in how social change has entered the high schools. The one in this account, set in New Jersey just outside New York City, seems as perilous as the one I knew. The difference seems to be that kids are now vaguely aware that the larger culture contains a place for them if they are different. The anxiety stems from the mystery of how to find it. Joey Nicci's innermost anxieties are visible to the (nearly) omniscient narrative voice of the novel. That distance allows some objectivity about Joey's variety of emotional states, but the distance is deftly handled:

"The boy's buzzcut swirled out like a tiny universe whose only limits were two stubby ears. For weeks Joey had been trying to stir up the bravery to say something to him, until his math teacher asked him what was so distracting.

New school, new town, new home, new league. Pick one, lady. "Wrestling, Ma'am. Tryouts start today."

The buzzcut turned around, smiled slyly, sized Joey up, whispered, "Whaddayou weigh?"

Note how the narrative telegraphs Joey's thoughts, then relays, by contrast, what he says. Before I understood this, I was occasionally irritated at him for a smart mouth, which, of course, he doesn't have. Provenzano establishes Joey as a genuinely smart boy with a good upbringing. The nascent conflict between his emergent sexuality (evident even in the short passage cited) and his jock identity is oddly buffered by the safeguards in the culture of wrestling against "misunderstandings." The testy sarcasm, jibes and innuendoes are within Joey's capacities. Also, the "matched" quality of wrestling, which removes the relative judgment of physical size, allows him to demonstrate real athletic prowess, which garners him some status. This is the ground for the daunting events which subsequently drive the plot. I won't give them away. I can say, however, that this short novel will reward the scrutiny of young and old alike.

– Chris Hamill, The Liberty Press

from TORSO August 2000

You know a novel is first rate when the story is so authentic and tense that the reality seems to resonate. PINS explores the strange boundaries of machismo and homophobia in sports, specifically high school wrestling. Yet this is hardly your typical coming-of-age story of being a gay teenager living in the adolescent closet in suburban America, because numerous harsh and heart-wrenching twists add chaos and nuances that keep the drama from being trite.

Set in middle-class Little Falls, N.J., just outside New York City, PINS centers on the blossoming friendship between Joey and Dink, two Catholic teenagers both on the school varsity wrestling team. Included here are all the crash diets, "nutpulls" and sexual tension that come with this difficult territory.

However, don't expect a sensationalized potboiler about teenage sex - this is not porn. Instead, PINS is more of a story about loners plagued by adolescent malaise, psychological detachment from suburbia, religion and family - and the grisly murder of one of their peers.

The story, which takes place in the mid-1990s, is an American tragedy set in a New Jersey world of PTA where Nirvana-crazed teens play Nintendo and quote Kurt Cobain lyrics, smash windows of gay bars, and Valium-addled housewives pray to patron saints, lurk in shopping malls and drag the kids to confession and Mass on Sundays to somehow make sense of all the madness.

While there are some humorous moments, such as Joey masturbating to Mario Lopez on Saved By The Bell and unsuccessfully trying to buy porno mags in a bookstore, the overall tone of PINS is sad and dark, but completely engrossing. This isn't so much a tale of teenage wrestlers as it is a brooding chronicle of Catholic guilt, faith, family and sexuality in a New Jersey of intolerance.

The characters here are real and loaded with depth, making the action and uncertain ending that much more vivid and ultimately poignant.

PINS is an auspicious debut, sort of a Catcher in the Rye about disillusioned gay jocks. It firmly establishes Jim Provenzano as an important new voice in early 21st-century fiction.

from East Bay Express, July 2000

All the way back to Proust and Radclyffe Hall, queer youth novels (whether frank or tacit) have told largely the same story: Art-loving, "sissy" lads pine indoors while the girls get to ride horses, play softball, etc., even as their "tomboyish" ways spur equal torment. Of course, these stereotypes wouldn’t exist if they weren’t sometimes true to life.

But not everyone is cut from the same mold, or experiences formative feelings of sexual "difference" in social isolation. Local writer Jim Provenzano’s first novel, PINS, is refreshing for the casual, credible way it paints a less familiar (in fiction, at least) albeit perhaps equally typical gay adolescence: his New Jersey-bred protagonist Joey Nicci is a jock through and through. Transferred from Catholic to public high school when his father’s career prompts a family move, sophomore Joey is cute and affable. But he’s unsure where he fits in clique-wise until making varsity squad on the wrestling team.

Like a lot of teens, Joey has a fair idea which way his desires tilt, but he’s not so confident yet about acting on them, let alone putting a specific preference-identity label on himself. The sometimes-literal sexual frisson in real competition wrestling (which is not at all like the flashy, faked TV kind, Provenzano takes pains to point out) does stoke his private fantasies. That doesn’t mean Joey’s just in it to get his rocks off – he’s serious about athletics, even if his still-closeted feelings make him weigh interactions between teammates in a more complex light.

The author, who pens the "Sports Complex" column in SF’s Bay Area Reporter, brings evident personal knowledge and a crisp, uncluttered prose style to this coming-out saga. Though told third-person, PINS effectively puts us in 15-year-old Joey’s p.o.v., capturing apt details from the musical obsessions du jour (thrash-metal like Tool and Nine Inch Nails) to the homoeroticism and homophobia that coexist in high school athletics.

Joey’s family life, too, is insightfully sketched, as his parents and younger siblings deal variably with relocation and other stresses. PINS works best early on, when such engrossing-if-unremarkable home/school concerns dominate. Midway, the tale takes a sharp turn – one that doles out vicious, drunken violence to the wrestling team’s more obvious "queer." Subsequent soul-searching, "narcing," media and court travails are well-enough handled. But however well-intentioned, these later developments feel a bit forced; the book might have made its necessary points about tolerance and fear just as vividly without resorting to ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama.

Still, PINS is a fresh debut that feels psychologically on target even when its plot mechanics grow schematic. A fast read, it’s accessible stuff for teens as well as adults–though, given some explicit sexual content in the late going, don’t expect PINS to surface on sub-college curricula anytime soon.

–Dennis Harvey