Joshua is a musical prodigy who was sickly as a boy. David is the rough-around-the-edges son of a pumpkin farmer. They meet when David steps in to defend Joshua from a schoolyard bully. Joshua instantly falls in love, but David has a girlfriend.
It isn't long before David and the girl break up, which leads to the boys becoming closer and closer. Their first date is to a concert by the legendary rock band Queen, and they are soon deeply in love. Things take a sour turn when a school prank by David goes horribly wrong — he’s sent to a halfway house for delinquents, and the pair are separated for several years.
Eventually they reconnect as adults, moving in together just as the horrific specter of AIDS begins to engulf the gay community. In an interview, Provenzano explains why he felt it was important to make the AIDS pandemic part of the story.
"AIDS was and is the most impactful experience of an entire generation," he said. "To ignore it in a gay novel, unless it's set long before it or on another planet, would be inauthentic. I had written about AIDS from many aspects, including my own experiences in New York City, in three previous novels. But most of the novels and memoirs of that time take place in big cities. I had several high school friends who stayed in Ohio, or who returned there, and died. I wanted to tell their stories."
But "Now I'm Here" is so much more than an AIDS story. The book touches upon themes of religious intolerance, rejection from family members, and the sometimes harsh realities of gay life in rural America. For Provenzano, writing the book was reliving his youth.
"While I was born in New York City, our family moved to Ashland, a small town in Ohio, when I was four," he said. "Serene, the fictional town I created, is smaller and farther south, but it is built from a lot [of] my own experiences going to the mall to buy concert tickets, driving around with friends, getting drunk and stoned at 'the cool kids' parties. I knew farm boys and actually worked on a produce farm one season when I took a break between college years. It was excruciating work, but it left a strong impression. All those details are quite real. Ever since then, I've had a special affection for pumpkins."
Provenzano acknowledges that Joshua and David are two very different types of people. He explains what brings them together.
"Their first encounter is a playground fight in grade school," he said. "I had crushes on boys even then, and David is based on a combination of guys I knew or admired secretly. I made David's invitation for Joshua to join him at a Queen concert a tie-in to their common interests. It sparks their friendship. Both of them have a sort of distance from the popular kids, but in different ways. That they are so different makes it work, because they don't judge each other."
The music of Queen plays a prominent role in the telling of the story — the book derives its title from Queen's song "Now I'm Here.” Queen is a big part of Joshua's life — his brilliant piano cover of the band's classic song "Bohemian Rhapsody" wins him a few appearances on television and a brief burst of minor fame in Hollywood.
"Queen had a significant meaning for me," said Provenzano. "I knew, of course, that Freddie Mercury was gay. So to see him take the stage, at the same 1978 concert described in the novel, in all his flamboyance, was a revelation. Also, as in the novel, I performed a piano solo version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" for my high school recital. Joshua's later TV appearances are fictionalized. I loved learning how to play rock music on an old upright piano my father retrieved from a demolition site in Cleveland. I still can't believe that my family tolerated all that playing for hours every day."
Even at over 350 pages, "Now I'm Here" is a quick and easy read. Joshua and David come to life through Provenzano'a prose, as does the town of Serene. The story beautifully conveys the exhilaration of love, the power of music, and the profound sadness of loss.
The book is also a slice of pre-internet life, when downloading music or meeting people online wasn't an option. In those days people had to listen to the radio or buy records in order to hear their favorite songs. They would meet by chance, as David and Joshua did, in real life situations. The late 70s and 80s were, in many ways the last remnants of a more innocent time. Provenzano's deft writing whisks readers back to those halcyon days.
"Back then you had to work to find a community," he said. "This story covers the last years of 'analog' life, pre-internet and before cell phones. I wanted very much to document that kind of life before it's forgotten. Even though this is a fictional story, I value cherishing real life experiences and memories."
In "Now I'm Here,” Provenzano's memories serve up a bittersweet nostalgia and a plethora of emotions which readers of all ages can relate to.
“Now I'm Here" by Jim Provenzano
358 pages, Beautiful Dreamer Press