Junior Willis by Richard Natale

Junior Willis by Richard Natale
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Romance, Historical, LGBTQ
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance takes Midwesterner Tom Larson through the Korean War, pre-Castro Havana and, finally, Hollywood, where he is befriended by the elusive and charismatic Junior Willis and must decide whether he’s prepared for genuine commitment.

Romance comes in many different forms, and some of them will gently sneak up on you if you allow them to.

Living in the closet was necessary for survival in previous generations, and it’s still the only option for some members of the LGBTQ+ community today. Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that showed the emotional toll this took on Tom and Junior. As friendly as many of their friends and relatives were, neither of these protagonists could ever be entirely sure how those folks would respond if they knew that Junior and Tom were both attracted to men. The descriptions of the steps they took to avoid arousing any suspicions were just as interesting as the passages that showed what happened when some of their loved ones were accidentally given peeks at a subculture heterosexual people knew almost nothing about back then.

I had trouble keeping track of all of the characters in this novella. Many of the people Tom and Junior met during their lives were only mentioned in passing, and the ones that stuck around weren’t always developed well enough for me to recall who they were when they were mentioned again later. It would have been helpful to either have more information about the personalities and backstories of the folks the main characters met or for the narrator to focus on a smaller supporting cast in general.

One of the other themes of this tale that I loved had to do with how Tom’s past affected his daily life as he left his 20s behind and settled into stable habits and a good job. Attempting to heal is difficult, especially for someone who was facing such high stakes and who only had a small number of people in his inner circle he could be his true self around. A memory might be decades old but still feel as fresh as the day it was made. I don’t want to share any spoilers about how Tom approached his difficult memories, but they did make me want to learn more about him. He demonstrated a great deal of courage in these moments. That is an admirable thing to do without a doubt.

Junior Willis was a thought-provoking and encouraging read.

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