NOTE: This novel was sent to me for review purposes. All opinions are my own.
There are so many things to talk about with Jeffrey Sotto’s novel The Moonballers: A Novel About the Invasion of a LGBTQ2+ Tennis League … by Straight People. I love comedy, and I was extremely curious when I was asked if I would like to review this book. My enthusiasm for tennis, which should not be confused with my skill level of tennis playing, is extremely high, and I was excited to see what I could learn about the sport from Sotto. Yet this book is so much more than just tennis. Indeed, if you’re looking at this book thinking you could not care less about the sport, I would urge you to still read it. While tennis is the thing that connects all the characters together, for better or worse, I was overcome by how beautifully Sotto was able to capture the lives and relationships of his characters.
Sotto brings his reader into a world that has had the dominant heteronormative narrative flipped on its head. It is a gay and queer novel that centres itself on queer storytelling, love, and relationships. It is a beautiful celebration of gay life and love with so much wit and wicked humour. Instead of having the token ‘gay’ and many other narrative tropes that appear in contemporary literature, Sotto’s novel is filled with a range of LGBTQIA+ people, and the straights are few and far between. I love how this subverts all hetero understandings of what society, sport, or even suburban life should look like.
Khalid, the token straight, joins “The Torpedo Valley Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Two Spirited+ Tennis Association” (TVLGBTQ2+TA). His motivations are questioned early on when Stefan, the president of the league, asks, “What is he doing in a gay league? We don’t know what he wants. We don’t know what the … straight agenda, or whatever it is, is!” Sotto’s ability to twist current narratives of the ‘gay agenda’ into this hilariously political satire and cutting line is part of his magic as a writer. These kinds of subtle digs at the current political discourse around gender, sexuality, and queerness in sport ask the reader to not only question their understanding of society and politics but also to question how we tell stories. Who is allowed to speak? Who is allowed to be centred in a narrative?
Sotto also tackles big issues like race and xenophobia in and outside of the queer community. Khalid, a straight tennis player with Syrian origins, along with Bibi, who is Philipino American, both share examples of how the election of Trump in 2016 changed their lives. Bibi confides in Khalid, “A few days after [Trump] got elected, I was in the line at a Dunkin’ Donuts. Some hick customer started yelling at the brown cashier for no reason. When the cashier asked him to calm down, he screamed, ‘don’t tell me to calm down, you fuckin’ brown piece of shit. This is our country again!’ Then he turns around and looks at me ‘You hear me, you dirty Mexican. This is our country now!'”
Sotto has a way of balancing these confronting and painful experiences with a sense of dignity and humour. I was extremely touched by Bibi’s story and his journey with cancer. Bibi is diagnosed with a kind of anal cancer that developed from HPV. The discussions around getting vaccinated against STIs while also writing about early warning signs for colorectal cancers were done in a way that promoted awareness while also not taking away from the plot of the narrative. I often dislike when cancer is used as just a generic plot twist, as though the tragedy just writes itself. Sotto was able to weave all of these elements of Bibi’s cancer journey together and make it something meaningful for the novel.
Bibi’s bluntness about dying felt refreshing and honest. As many of my long-time followers will know, my father died of bowel cancer, and most recently, my brother died of cancer. Bibi’s story felt real, beautiful, and nothing sugar-coated. It was heartbreaking but also accompanied by some witty and hilarious comedic scenes. Many of the scenes in The Moonballers often made me think of the jokes I made with my brother and father about their illnesses – death and dying can be rather morbid but not always void of laughter.
I am really looking forward to what Sotto will write next and urge any comedy-loving readers to get themselves a copy. As always, share the reading love.
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