Sycamore’s narrator also wrestles with “incest flashbacks” and the AIDS crisis. Photo by Jesse Mann

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's third novel—Sketchtasy—locks us in the head of Alexa, a self-described "queen" in early her 20s who's trying to survive life in mid-1990s Boston.

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Random Bostonians subject her and her queer friends, along with the black and brown people in her neighborhood, to daily acts of violence. Alexa can't even walk to the laundromat without some frothing heterosexual trying to drop a cinder block on her head.

She's also dealing with "incest flashbacks." Her father molested her as a child, and when we meet her, she's in the process of preparing to confront him. Meanwhile, her parents have cut her off financially for dropping out of college. To pay for rent, vegan food, and tons of drugs, Alexa starts turning tricks for cash—again. And, of course, it's all happening during the AIDS crisis.

All of that sounds heavy, and it is. But Alexa greets each new threat of violence, each traumatic flashback, and every betrayal the way she treats everything else: like another goddamn thing she's got to deal with. Her nonchalance and humor aren't evidence of some kind of willful obtuseness; they're the tools she needs to stay resilient in this compelling story of survival.

Much of the book is a line-by-line, pill-by-pill, john-by-john account of life in Boston's gay club scene. I cannot overstate how often characters snort lines of coke or pop pills in this book. Many pages read like laundry lists—straightforward descriptions of the drugs done, the bars crawled, and the after-hours hosted. While Sycamore risks monotony with Alexa's mesmerizing monologue, she is also getting a lot of mimetic mileage out of it. You're supposed to feel the boredom of doing all these drugs. Sycamore isn't glamorizing anything here—except for good hair and great dancing. She's trying to put you in the room.

Sycamore's turns toward sentiment, however, rely too heavily on the literary convention of appreciating the way light looks, and so those gestures aren't as successful as the humor.

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Aside from contributing to a fully immersive reading experience, Alexa's singular, all-consuming voice gives Sycamore the opportunity to bury emotional land mines. You wouldn't expect something as common as the announcement of a character's age to make your heart gush with grief, but after 153 pages of intense drug journaling, of watching characters negotiate more violence and pain in an afternoon than privileged people have to negotiate in a lifetime, a line about someone's 21st birthday will make you put the book down and take a walk.

Alexa's story is fictional, but it reads like a first-person historical account of queer survival, one that accurately portrays the struggle of a person trying to build a community outside of a society that constantly rejects her. There are no answers here, and no detailed blueprint for how to build that community. But there are glimmers, clues, hopes, sketches of a possible path forward.

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