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by Jim Provenzano
Myrmidude Press, 1999
Review by Toby Emert, M.A., M.Ed. on Sep 18th 2002


Joey Nicci, a fifteen-year-old wrestler who has recently transferred from an all-male Catholic school in Newark to a suburban public high school in Little Falls, New Jersey, is the protagonist in Jim Provenzano’s debut novel, Pins. Joey embodies many of the fears and distractions of adolescence: he observes himself and others closely and obsesses about how he will be perceived by his peers, most especially the other members of the wrestling team.  He is younger and smaller than most of his teammates, but he is also scrappy and determined and within weeks of becoming a “Little Falls Colt,” he has won his first match and secured a place of esteem on the team.  One of the significant complications for Joey is that he knows he is gay and he has to consider how he can continue to hide that fact in a world where he struggles to establish an identity. Further complicating his situation is his strong attraction to “Dink,” a fellow wrestler, who sends mixed messages about his interest in being friends with Joey.

Provenzano’s novel has resonances of Robert Cormier’s well-known and often read The Chocolate War in its maleness.  Much of how Joey comes to define himself at the new school is through his association with wrestling, with its specific codes of masculine competition.  Joey’s initiation into the world of adolescence and high school is complicated by the fact that he is gay.

Provenzano works hard to make Joey the hero in this sprawling story that struggles to integrate too many ideas and address too many issues, but he somehow maintains enough distance from his good intentions to keep the reader guessing and to keep the pages turning.  Joey’s family has moved from Newark partially to ensure that their teenage son does not succumb to the pressures of the urban scene.  They want him and his younger siblings, a brother, Mike, and a four-year-old sister, Sophia, to have the advantages afforded to those who live on tree-lined streets.  That Joey manages to give in to the pressure he feels from his fellow wrestling buddies to participate in their growing penchant for misbehavior is part of the irony of the plot and part of what creates the momentum of the novel. 

Joey eventually ends up in a situation that threatens his own life and the lives and futures of his peers.  The moment of grand conflict is somewhat suspicious, mostly because the description of the incident is muddy and confusing for the reader, but it is not surprising.  Provenzano leaves a trail of hints that are not difficult to interpret.  That tendency is, perhaps, a flaw in the writing.

Provenzano does succeed, however, in creating dramatic moments for Joey that force him to confront his feelings about himself as a gay teenager and about his responsibilities to his family, his friends, and to his conscience.  Though the real action of this story comes late in the novel and though it hovers in the realm of melodrama, the emotional core of Joey’s reactions and decisions seems authentic.  He responds with all the fierce volatility of any confused and cornered adolescent: he, by turns, withdraws severely and lashes out against anyone who may be able to help him manage and cope.

Provenzano does not shy away from the real difficulties that gay teenagers face:  Joey is constantly aware of how his attraction to other boys and to men is dangerous, both emotionally and physically.  His vulnerability in this regard is made even more poignant by setting the novel in the world of wrestling, with its specific code of masculine competition and its overt sexuality.  Pins is, in fact, quite a sexy book, both in terms of its frank portrayal of Joey’s attractions and in its description of his fantasized and actual relationships with the other characters.

Though he may have chosen to edit the novel more closely, Provenzano has delivered a compelling story about a gay teenager who, as in any well-structured initiation story, confronts himself and his environment and begins to find a way to integrate the complications he encounters.  


© 2002 Toby Emert

Toby Emert is currently finishing up a doctorate in Education at the University of Virginia. He has worked as a freelance journalist, a classroom teacher, a counselor, and a director in offices, classrooms, and on stages in several major US cities.