In a society where gender is often still considered a binary divide, people identifying themselves by unique definitions often fall through the cracks. Enter Terry Tomey, protagonist of Rough Paradise, who is an intersex teen born as Theresa but longing to legally change his name to Terence and live as a man. The novella tells Terry’s story of growing up in the 1970s in a conservative, working class community where being different leads to incarceration at “the Butterscotch Palace”, a mental institution far less pleasant than its whimsical name suggests. Though Terry knows he is meant to be a boy, his attempts to live truthfully are constantly frustrated by a closed-minded community that chooses to ostracize rather than understand diversity.
From a young age Terry’s tomboy behavior is encouraged by his steelworker father, but once puberty hits and Terry begins experimenting with his sexual desires towards girls, the community’s reaction is devastating to the sensitive boy. Terry’s parents send him to a girls-only school, force him to wear dresses, and make him see a psychologist intent on “aversion therapy”. Terry’s only friends are his adopted stray cat Pussy and Darla, a girl whose own father regularly pimps her out to customers behind his dive bar. The two form an unlikely bond as best friends, confidantes, lovers, and the only support system each other has.
This edgy novella lives up to its name as it describes Terry’s struggles to fit in at home and with his peers. When his blossoming relationship with Darla culminates in several intense erotic encounters, Terry experiences pleasure but also confusion and shame at his body, a universal experience of adolescence magnified further by the humiliation imposed on Terry by his parents and doctor. Terry’s journey to self-acceptance takes on a noble quality as he survives trials tantamount to a contemporary Hercules, and the narrative is infused with First Nations and Greek mythology of two-spirited or two-sexed oracles in an examination of contemporary attitudes to gender and sexuality.
If you’re seeking an edgy, challenging read told from a perspective you’ve likely never considered, Rough Paradise is an excellent place to start. Informative, entertaining, and highly relatable despite its exceptional subject matter, Rough Paradise manages to cut to the core of the adolescent experience while addressing important social issues.