A laugh-out-loud YA debut that examines the realities of small-town queer life and celebrates the transformative power of drag—perfect for fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pumpkin.
Peter Thompkins needs a public image overhaul. After a tense confrontation with one of the few other queer kids in his small-town high school, rumors about him are becoming more elaborate by the day. Meanwhile, his best friend Alan (aka teen drag queen Aggie Culture) is throwing Mason County’s debut Drag Extravaganza. Although Peter is a self-described “dragnostic,” he decides to help produce the show, hoping to prove that he isn’t a self-hating gay. In the process, he finds himself facing down angry guard dogs, angrier bigots, and a very high-strung church lady. As backlash grows, Peter begins to wonder whether he's setting fire to his already damaged reputation and if his friendship with Alan will survive past curtain call.
At turns touching, sharply funny, and a little absurd, Dragging Mason County explores the pains and pleasures of queer community through one teen’s journey to self-acceptance.
Release date: October 3, 2023
Publisher: Annick Press
Print pages: 290
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Dragging Mason County
“This was a terrible idea,” I inform Alan. “You know how I feel about mixing with the locals.”
The parking lot of the Dairy Freeze is radiating heat, and we’re caged in on either side by souped-up pickup trucks. Alan Goode and I don’t fit the quaint small-town life profile on a good day, but in his short-shorts and coiffed hair, Alan sticks out like a gay thumb. It’s drawing the attention of the girl sitting in the truck bed of her lofty war machine of a vehicle. The scrutinizing glare of Chrissy McPhee, wealthiest member of Mason Central Secondary’s ruling class, is as familiar as it is unwanted. I’m sure that plenty of guys in Mason County would love to be ogled by a girl with the keys to her own all-terrain vehicle, but I just want to bat her attention away with my notably limp wrists.
“Look, I’ve always been very fashion forward, Peter,” Alan replies. “And if people can’t handle it, then that’s between them and their god.”
“Fashion requires wearing clothing,” I say, wiping sweat from my eyes. “Your short-shorts barely count as fabric.”
I try not to look at Chrissy, knowing that she’s got more than a few opinions on the way that Alan’s nipples are nearly busting out of the T-shirt he recently whittled into a stringy tank top. Chrissy is tiny, even from the top of her mecha-truck, but she has the legs of a volleyball player, so it always feels like she’s about to kick a hole through your chest. Her blonde hair is chemically rigid, and her pinched face always seems to be scanning you for structural weaknesses. Which is exactly what I can feel it doing right now.
From the corner of my eye I catch a second head bobbing out from behind Chrissy. The line moves forward a touch and I pray that Brison Dallas, gay best friend to Chrissy McPhee, remains silent on the topic of our physical appearances for once in his life. Alan and I look like gay kids in a gritty indie movie about plucky rural queers winning a poetry competition. Brison Dallas, on the other hand, looks like a model kick-starting his acting career in a movie about a teen werewolf hunter.
Alan’s skin may be clear and porcelain, given his meticulous nighttime skincare routine, but mine is an oozing mess. My face is a perpetual before picture in those late-night skin-treatment commercials. Alan, on the other hand, is fat. He says this proudly, never shying away from the word in a crusade to destigmatize rotundness. Alan is also the kind of tall that involves ducking through doorways and shopping at specialty stores. My own drooping belly sits below a set of wibbly T-Rex arms and what Alan often describes (in a froggy French accent) as my li’l floppy tiddies. At which point he flips both of them like a hamburger and makes a satisfied sizzling sound. Alan has a swooping mane of hair, while my hairline has already begun to consider retirement. My round face gives me the features of an old baby and my terrible posture makes me look like an old man. Think of me as a middle-aged man-baby. I know I do. All of this is to say that Alan and I are not the six-packed gays you see selling supplements while you’re scrolling through Poster.
“Oh!” Alan says, lighting up and waving. “Hi, Chrissy, hi, Brison!”
I look toward the truck only to discover that, yes, Brison does have a single eyebrow raised in a galling exhibition of his typical smuggery.
Chrissy waves with an icy titter.
“I hate them,” I hiss.
“I know, baby,” Alan tuts with motherly concern. He lays his hand between my shoulder blades before realizing his mistake and wiping the sweat off his hand using what little bit of surface area his shorts can afford him. The line ahead of us moves, and it’s a relief to disappear from view behind the comically oversized tires of the Mad Max truck to my left.
“And I don’t get why you’re so nice to them,” I continue.
“I’m not nice,” Alan explains. “I’m just cordial.”
“They’re not nice to you, Alan. You don’t need to be nice to them.”
I remind him of this despite knowing exactly why Alan continues to offer them a good-natured smile. Alan changes the subject with as much subtlety as his short-shorts.
“I have big news, Peter,” Alan announces grandly. “Please don’t let your silly little schoolyard grumbles spoil my day.”
“I resent that characterization. And, what, did you finally get that piece of popcorn out of your teeth?”
“No,” he sighs. “But I have named her Poppy and made my peace with her. I will have you know that you are looking at someone who has recently had a post liked by drag royalty.”
I say nothing and scan the menu board.
“Drag royalty, Peter!” Alan presses.
I search for something to say but come up empty. It’s not that I hate drag. I just have no opinion on the matter. I consider myself dragnostic. Alan not only loves drag but loves doing drag. But to me, drag is a lot like playing the cello or doing the math with all the triangles. I can respect the amount of skill, craft, and determination that goes into it without getting any joy from the result. Not to mention the fact that doing drag just paints another target on your back. This target just happens to be painted with eyeliner.
“Fine,” I comply. “What internet drag superstar has descended from the heavens to heart your offerings?”
“None other,” Alan announces, “than Tess Tosterone!”
Alan slaps me on the arm, which to him is playful and to anyone on the receiving end is bruise inducing.
“Tess Tosterone is only the winner of Dragathon 2017, Peter. Largely considered one of the best seasons of the show, if not thebest season by many notable media critics.”
Dragathon is the Super Bowl for people dressing in wigs and heels. It’s a competition show where drag queens from across the globe are selected to compete against one another in weekly performances before someone gets eliminated by the judges. Whoever is left standing at the very end is given a big golden crown and wins a bunch of money and sponsorship deals. Dragathon is massively popular, and weekly screenings at drag venues have become standing appointments for queers the world over. Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, like Mason, in the heart of Mason County. Alan is always showing me videos of drag brunch screenings, where queens in massive wigs and drawn-on eyebrows screen the show over eggs Benedict and mimosas while pouring pitchers of water over their fake boobs. Then Alan will sigh longingly and wish aloud that he could go to an event like that.
Because there is nowhere in Mason to actually perform. Alan performs on video and uploads it to YouTube. He’s even pretty good at what he does. By the time Alan is done doing his makeup, wig, nails, and accoutrements, he has transformed into a statuesque woman named Aggie Culture. She even has a decent following on Poster.
Alan and, by extension, Aggie Culture, loves country music. While I spend most of my time online trying to find music and movies that bring a little bit of the real world into the hick-state dystopia that is Mason, Alan can’t get enough of the local musical cuisine. His first Poster video was a mashup of “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Ring of Fire.” Somehow Alan manages to be from a different planet while still being the perfect product of the Mason County cultural slop bucket. Don’t let anyone tell you that Alan Goode doesn’t contain multitudes.
Alan grabs my arm in shock. “Oh my god. Who is that?”
We draw closer to the window as the line thins, revealing a teenage boy behind the counter who looks to be around our age. His dark, wavy hair is squashed beneath a black Dairy Freeze cap. His smile, delivered to the family in front of us, is slanted to the side. A tiny spattering of acne dots half of his sharp jawline. His eyes are a particularly fetching kind of blue, and when they land on mine, my chest pangs with an electrical lurch. Attractive men are a rarity in Mason, so it’s not like I’m used to this kind of thing. Most of the boys at Mason Central Secondary are off the table by merit of their compulsory heterosexuality, to say nothing of their bootcut jeans, military buzz cuts, and their widely held belief that guns are actually kind of interesting.
Seeing a fresh, attractive face in Mason is what I imagine it’s like to see a rare species of gazelle out in the wild. You want nothing more than to stare at their dainty little legs and curly horns, but you don’t want to spook them in the process.
“The guy in the window?” I ask.
“Obviously,” Alan replies, voice lowered conspiratorially. “Are you getting, like . . . vibes from him?”
“Yes, Peter. Vibes.”
“Gay energies? LGBTQ v-i-b-e-s?”
“Vibes of the homosexually inclined, Peter, yes. Or at least some chaotic bisexual energies.”
“How can you even tell?”
“Vibes are not predicated by talking alone,” Alan pontificates. “There’s also outfit, jewelry, hair, and how they pronounce the word quinoa. Have I taught you nothing?”
“Leave the poor guy alone. He doesn’t need a pair of creeps breathing down his neck.”
“I’d do more than just breathe down it.”
The family in front of us clears and the Soft-Serve Guy waves us over. Alan places our order with a laugh in his voice while I avoid eye contact, looking at the sun-bleached seating and the spill residue covered in flies. As Soft-Serve Guy makes our chocolate and vanilla swirl dips, Alan plays it cool by scrolling Poster through the cracked screen on his phone.
“Oh my sweet baby god, Peter. She commented.” Alan’s eyes grow wide as his free hand clamps around his mouth.
“Tess Tosterone commented!” Alan squeals while nearby customers scowl at our audible flouncy-ness.
“Did you just say Tess Tosterone?” asks a voice from behind the counter. Soft-Serve Guy is back, holding two ice-cream cones dipped in chocolate. His adorable face has lit up brighter, his smile becoming somehow even more lopsided.
“Yes!” says Alan. “You like Tess Tosterone?”
We drop our coins on the counter and he looks at us like we’ve asked if the sky is blue. “She’s only the most talented queen to come out of Dragathon.”
“This is so, so wild!” Alan howls. “We love Dragathon. Not a lot of people around here watch it.”
Technically only Alan loves Dragathon, but right now I don’t mind being lumped into the equation.
“I’m actually from suburbia-land,” he says, shrugging. “I’m just visiting, so maybe I don’t count. I still don’t see much drag, but I did get to see a few shows at Pride this year before I came to work for my uncle. It’s so important to get out there and support local drag artists, right?”
“Okay, you’re going to love my page,” Alan swears. From a little slip at the back of his phone case, Alan produces a white business card embossed with Aggie’s trademark green wig. The two chat excitedly and I say nothing as a feeling of urgency settles over me. Alan has launched into a full song and dance while I can’t even muster a quick hello to the only boy in the history of Mason County who can string together a complete sentence. For the first time in a very long time, silence feels like the wrong move entirely.
“I’m Lorne,” says Soft-Serve Guy.
“I’m Alan, and this is my BFF, Peter.”
I wave, knowing for certain that Lorne can only see my half-moon boob sweat.
Alan smiles widely at Lorne. “Well, let’s talk drag sometime soon!”
Lorne waves the card and smiles back. We’re halfway across the parking lot, our cones already melting, before it even occurs to me that my last chance to speak has come and gone. I know that I should just be glad I made it out without saying something humiliating, but for some reason I’m not.
“The vibes have been confirmed,” Alan decrees, his delight only throwing my self-loathing into starker contrast. He makes for the shady stretch of grass and trees next to the parking lot.
“What, because he likes drag?”
“No, because he loves drag.”
“Plenty of straight guys like drag, I bet. The bar for being a progressive straight dude has got to be super low, right?” I reason. “For all we know, he could just like the attention, like the time you deleted all your social media accounts for the weekend just to see if anyone would notice.”
“It’s called Swift-ing, Peter, and it is a perfectly acceptable means of gauging one’s social standing.”
“No,” I contend, shaking my head. “You’re doing what you always do.”
“Excuse me? I don’t always do anything. I’m an enigma, a mystery, like the Phantom of the Opera, or the guy who works at the dollar store who has a dancer’s body.”
“You always get your heart set on some guy who turns out to be, shockingly, heterosexual. Like the guy who works at the dollar store who has a dancer’s body.”
“Sorry if I prefer a tragic backstory. You know I’m an empath.”
I lick chocolate goo off my knuckles, girding myself for yet another episode of Why Can’t He Just Like Me Back, Peter? It’s not a great show, but it’s been on for, like, a million seasons.
“But this is a great day, Peter,” Alan continues. “It’s just like Tess Tosterone herself said when she commented on my Poster post.”
“What did she comment, anyway?” I ask.
“She commented, and I quote, ‘You love to see the magic of a pair of cowboy boots.’ And isn’t that, like, my entire brand?” Alan drops with a flourish beneath a tree and raises the cone to his lips before doing something rather unladylike with it.
“There is nothing magical about what you’re doing with your mouth right now,” I tell him.
“The magic of gay love!” Alan exclaims. “Soft-Serve Guy Lorne is going to follow my channel, and then he will fall in love with me.”
I sit next to him and consider my options before I just let it go. I don’t have the heart to point out that neither of us stands a chance with a guy like that, even if he is gay. Sometimes I wonder if Alan really does see the world as nothing but flapping bluebirds and a sun wearing sunglasses while waving a Pride flag. Do I tell him that pining after someone he’s barely made eye contact with is going to end in heartbreak? Or do I let him play it out while keeping myself clear of the social carnage?
Alan regards me with a discerning eye. “And what about you?”
I blink. “What about me?”
“I have an open heart, Peter. Some could even say that I wear it on my sleeve. But I’ve known you forever and not once have I seen you take a stab at romance.”
“See, that’s your problem. Stabbing and romance do not mix.”
“Oh, okay.” He hunches his shoulders and folds his arms tight. “I’m Peter,” he says in a grumpy-faced imitation of me. “I’d much rather make every single interaction a joke instead of knowing what it’s like to feel true love.”He’s not wrong. I may be a constant companion to Alan’s romantic misfires, but never once have I tried for romance of my own. I risk a glance back at the window, where the Soft-Serve Guy is leaning out and making small talk with a pair of camo-clad locals. Maybe Alan isn’t totally off the mark. Closed off and guarded is my entire brand. But Soft-Serve Guy is handsome. I am not. Asking him on a date would do nothing but land me knee-deep in the kind of humiliation I’ve only received secondhand so far. It would also be a direct violation of my cardinal rule: I will avoid being notable, significant, or otherwise remarkable in any way. Being gay in Mason County is enough of a spotlight, which is why I do my best to keep my head down and avoid the mockery that is built into the gay-teen-in-a-small-town experience. From the casual use of the f-word (not the fun f-word) on the part of my classmates, cold french fries being thrown at my head, and even one instance of that classic locker graffiti thing you see in movies, ...
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