St. Louis Post-Dispatch

April 10, 2006 Issue

America's Boy
By Dale Singer

When we first meet Wade Rouse in this sometimes ribald, sometimes wrenching memoir of growing up gay in the Ozarks, he is posing in his family's log cabin in regal, make-believe splendor. His outfit would be unusual for any 5-year-old boy, but in deep southwest Missouri, it's positively alien.

"I am wearing the following hand-picked items: My grandma Rouse's red heels (her 'whore' shoes, she calls them); my mom's black-and-white polka-dot bikini (which fits surprising well after duct-taping it down, and it shows my thin, tan body and blond hair); gold earrings that look like marigolds; a faux pearl necklace; a tinfoil crown embedded with glued-on red checkers; and a cardboard sash that says MISS SUGAR CREEK in red magic marker."

There he is, America's boy, imprisoned in a time and a place that he often finds hard to understand or to accept. Through the prism of his pain and disappointment, Rouse has fashioned a remembrance that is funny and sad and insightful and depressing, at times inspirational and always definitely different.

Part of its uniqueness comes from Rouse's circumstances. His extended family - mother, father, brother, grandparents and assorted aunts, uncles and others - don't quite seem to know what to make of the little boy who is struggling with his weight and his identity. But they never seem to waver in their acceptance of him, though their gruff manner may bruise at times.

They do their best to include him in their family ways - gigging frogs, noodling catfish, holding hoochenannies with homemade liquor. But the incidents that occur, and Rouse's way of describing them, often result in what could be the script for a new hybrid TV show - maybe "Will and Grace" move to Mayberry.

Rouse even thinks of himself in celebrity terms: "Each day, I try my damnedest to look like Robby Benson, but I end up looking exactly like Mindy Cohn." (For those too young to conjure up an image of Benson, Ashton Kutcher may be an acceptable substitute. I don't know that there is a substitute for Mindy Cohn.)

Midway through "America's Boy," Rouse's life and the book's tone make a sudden shift when his older brother, Todd, dies in a motorcycle accident. Places and activities that used to bring the family such pleasure now cause inescapable pain, and Wade - never one to turn down a second or third helping - balloons to 240 pounds on a 5-foot-4 frame. It's not the best shape for someone entering high school, when being accepted is already hard enough.

But after struggling through high school and college - a time in his life that "America's Boy" gives curiously short shrift - Rouse is inspired to turn his life around when he sees, of all things, a late-night TV ad for an exercise machine, featuring a handsomely rugged man with a ripped body who swears the machine changed his life. Comparing that image to what he sees in the mirror - a sweaty, obese, 20-year-old she-male - he makes a vow he is able to keep. With dramatic changes in lifestyle and his physique, Rouse leaves his closet and accepts himself while pursuing a career in St. Louis.

Nor should anyone be surprised if Rouse follows this first book up with others that are equally moving. The ease of his prose and the honesty of his narrative feed right into the reading public's current thirst for memoir, and Rouse's combination of honest emotion and evocative prose seems destined to be a hit.