Cover of The Last Exit to Normal by Michael Harmon. A sign shaped like Montana stands in a field, displaying the book's title.

About the Book

Title: The Last Exit to Normal
Published: 2008

Cover Story: What You See Is What You Get
Drinking Buddy: Gee, Wally…
Testosterone Level: Huntin’, Drinkin’, and Brawlin’
Talky Talk: Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That…
Bonus Factors: Crusty Ol’ Broad, Rear Window
Bromance Status: Love the Sin, Dislike the Sinner

Cover Story: What You See Is What You Get

Yep, that’s a sign shaped like Montana. Could be worse. I’m glad they clarified that this was a novel. Initially, I thought it was a taco salad.

The Deal:

So when Ben Campbell was fourteen, his father announced that he was homosexual. If he expected to finally be able to live the free life of an out and proud young gay man, it kind of backfired. Ben’s mother immediately ditched the family, leaving just Ben, his father, and his father’s boyfriend, Edward.

Things are never the same. Ben breaks every rule he can in an attempt to hurt his father the way he’s been hurt. And just when Ben is finally starting to get his act together, he gets in trouble in a ‘wrong place, wrong time’ situation. So Dad and Edward announce that the family is moving away from Spokane to Edward’s home town of Rough Butte, Montana, to move in with Edward’s mother.

Seriously, Rough Butte.

Drinking Buddy: Gee, Wally…

Two pints of beer cheersing with a "Denied" stamp over them

Ben prides himself in being a skateboarding badass, though he admits to himself that he just wants to punish his father. When he’s plopped down in rural Montana, he’s completely out of sorts, having nothing in common with anyone.

But gosh darn it, these small town people are just so nice! Miss Mae, Edward’s crusty old mother, makes Ben earn his keep, doing yard work. But, golly, young Ben finds himself taking pride in being responsible and wanting to do right by his elders. And when Ben falls for Kimberly, the cowgirl down the way, he decides to woo her by helping with her farm work. And darned if he doesn’t discover the joys of putting in an honest day’s labor.

Why these country folk are just as good as the people he left behind. Maybe more so.

And Jerry Mathers as the Beaver…

Testosterone Level: Huntin’, Drinkin’, and Brawlin’

In order to fit in in Rough Butte, Ben becomes one of the locals. He goes hunting with Kimberly’s brother. He saves her uncle during a combine accident. He learns to navigate the dirt roads and how to raise a bird dog.

And he sneaks off into the barn with Miss Kimberly a time or two. Just for kissing and such.

This was the most realistic portrayal of city folk gone country since Green Acres.

Talky Talk: Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That…

Now the theme of a lot of YA LGBTQ books is that gay people are born that way, they have nothing to be ashamed of, and people who don’t accept them are the ones with the problem. Makes for good literature.

The thing about The Last Exit to Normal is that Ben already believes all those things. Sure, he’s caught hell for having a gay father, but he realizes that his dad is totally gay, and it’s pointless to wish otherwise.

But that doesn’t mean he has to like his father. And that doesn’t mean the readers have to either.

Quite frankly, Mr. Campbell comes off as kind of a jerk in this book. Every time Ben gets in trouble, he threatens to kick Ben out of the house. When Ben complains about his father or Edward, Mr. Campbell accuses Ben of homophobia and goes into a major ‘I’m not talking to you’ snit. When Edward’s mother, Miss Mae, starts laying into Ben, neither of the guys stand up for him.

I enjoyed this book because the LGBTQ characters weren’t automatically the heroes or the nice guys. Quite frankly, I didn’t like Ben’s father. Not because he was gay, but because he was kind of a overly-dramatic, self-centered fussbudget.

Bonus Factor: Crusty Ol’ Woman

Betty White, who plays a wacky grandmother, emphasizing Sandra Bullock's flat chest in The Proposal

So years ago, Edward’s mother more or less told him to leave town, knowing that Rough Butte wasn’t safe for a kid like him. And now her son has come home with a partner and his smart ass son. Well, Miss Mae knows a thing or two about discipline. It’s her house, and she’ll have all three of them toeing the line in no time.

At times, Miss Mae comes off as a loveable old grouch, giving Ben advice, selling him her old car, and feeding him. But most of the time she’s just plain mean, if not cruel. When Ben smarts off to her, he’s forced to sleep in the shed (and of course neither Edward nor Mr. Campbell object). And she’s constantly smacking Ben and Edward. I just plain did not care for her, though Ben magically grows attached to this surrogate grandmother.

Bonus Factor: Rear Window

Jimmy Stewart looking through his camera in Rear Window

Ben and his family are welcomed to the neighborhood by Mr. Hinks, who lives next door. He spent a lot of high school beating the shit out of Edward, and now apologizes for this by demanding they all stay away from his eleven-year-old son, Billy, lest they make him into a homo.

Ben, however, notices there’s something not quite right about Billy. He lovingly pets a cat, then goes out and shoots it. He tells Ben that his father makes him stay in the closet, and not the metaphorical gay one. What are all those weird graves out in the woods? Who’s vandalizing Mr. Hinks’s property and framing Ben for it? Aside from Ben, I mean.

As Ben becomes a big brother figure to Billy, he and Kimberly start to realize there’s something seriously wrong next door. And Mr. Hinks does not like prying. Especially by someone like Ben.

Bromance Status: Love the Sin, Dislike the Sinner

I do love a good LGBTQ book, but the characters kind of failed me here. I’d stand proud with you in any pride march, but really wouldn’t care to hang out with you otherwise.

Full Disclosure: I bought a used copy of this book on vacation, when my family tragically ran out of reading material and I had to buy an armload of discarded books from the local library. I got no money.


Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.