Doug Henderson has written an anthem for all the geeks and outcasts from the Rust Belt. His wonderful debut novel transported me back to the early 1990s, when me and my friends would haunt Twice-Loved Books and various used record shops in and around Youngstown.
We went to metal shows all over northeast Ohio, so obviously, I related most to Albert, the chaos agent of Cleveland Heights. He works at a record store, listens to death metal and has a wardrobe consisting of black band T-shirts and jeans.
The action begins when he joins an LGBTQ D&D group who meet every Thursday in the back of a comic shop. He is a welcome addition to all members of the party except Ben, the protagonist. Lacking in nerve and self-confidence (as well as a job or apartment), Ben is flustered by Albert’s intrusion.
He complains to Celeste, the dungeon master, “He’s too good looking to play D&D.”
Behind his objections, of course, is an irrepressible and terrifying attraction. The tension between them drives the novel, fueled by Henderson’s sharp prose and humor.
There is so much I love about this book, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. Henderson certainly laid the foundation for an epic, with a large ensemble cast, including the gamers, a rival vampire role-playing group and some banker bros (including Mooneyham, a member of the campaign who hasn’t yet come out to his coworkers).
Mooneyham is perhaps the most compelling member of the group. While the others are traditional geeks, Mooneyham is an alpha male with locker-room charisma who hides his inner nerd beneath a power suit. He is annoying, but as the novel progresses he shows depth and vulnerability. He is less open about his sexuality because, as he explains, the others were misfits whose reveal was not a huge surprise. When Mooneyham comes out, it will be a bombshell. It might also derail his career.
Unfortunately, this storyline fizzles into a missed opportunity. Henderson has built up many interesting characters, but the novel’s brevity doesn’t allow their arcs to fully develop.
And while a common (and often justified) critique of cis-het male authors is that they struggle to create well-rounded female characters, this is not exclusive to straight men. The group’s women, Valerie (cis) and Celeste (trans), have a ton of potential that isn’t realized. I wanted their stories to be more significant.
But ultimately, the book is about Ben and Albert, and their journey is portrayed brilliantly. It’s a strong debut, and I look forward to where Henderson takes us next. Personally, I would like a sequel. I love this group of adventurers and want to spend more time in the geek shops of northeast Ohio.