MAKE BELIEVE | Kirkus Reviews

A queer high school student ponders the tragedies engulfing his young life and small town.

Lincoln, Arizona, is the setting for Wolfe’s contemporary slice of LGBTQ+ suspense fiction. “Token gay” Tyler Tuckerman struggles to survive beneath the weight of bullying from football jocks, the pressure of being young and out in high school, and a rash of teen suicides. September is sweltering in the gossipy town, which only makes things more dramatic at a funeral for the latest teen suicide, a tragic death following on the heels of those of two other kids who killed themselves on graduation night months earlier. Meanwhile, new student Nicole Clark arrives and immediately gravitates toward Tyler, who appreciates her friendship. Though a fresh face in town, Nicole is still traumatized by her mother’s death from cancer and the fact that her father is the new county sheriff. An avid photographer, Tyler regularly records the Lincoln High football games but must ride the bus to the events with the hypermasculine jocks, an activity he finds “kind of hot. Almost like being in a locker room, but the harassing side is a bitch.” What saves his sanity are memories of a forbidden love with William Ackhurst at summer camp, but he remains obsessed with the boy’s devastating suicide. Narrative duties are split between Tyler and mental health counselor Jennifer Hall, newly arrived from Phoenix and commissioned by the town to assess the serial teen suicides at Lincoln High. She instantly gels with Nicole’s father, and the two band together to look into the particulars of Lincoln’s sudden young deaths. She begins with online investigations and student interviews to forge partnerships between herself and the most at-risk school kids to gauge which students could be next to inexplicably lose hope and want to end their lives.

In this potent tale, vivid details emerge about online chat room participants who target gay students and encourage violent behavior against them at the school—along with specifics about a sinister drug cult. Jennifer also discovers the last boy to die was using mood-altering drugs and tranquilizers that match the toxicology scans of the other victims. When Tyler and Nicole are exposed to heavy drugs at a party and another student winds up dead, Jennifer must spring into action to apprehend the killer. The culprit may be much closer to Tyler than the young protagonist ever imagined. While the plot is drawn from relevant headlines and speeds along with a snappy momentum, Wolfe’s talent is in his crisp characterizations that pepper the story, from the lunch lady with a penchant for sneaking an afternoon cocktail to bullies like Jason Brophy who foment aggression and trouble at school. Gay readers will find Tyler’s openness about his sexuality refreshing, but a plot twist in the book’s final third turns the tables on everyone involved. In an economy of pages, this story manages to skillfully reflect on high school identity and self-discovery in the midst of bullying, confusing sexual awakenings, temptation, and angst from all directions. But the intricate novel is also about suicide and murder in their cruelest forms.

A focused, impressively nuanced tale about teenagers, drugs, lies, and the terror of hidden enemies.

Pub Date: today

ISBN: 978-0-578-75048-4

Page Count: 187

Publisher: Manuscript

Review Posted Online: Aug. 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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