February 2021

Let’s Get Back to the Party

Review by
Zak Salih’s first novel is a gorgeously written meditation on being a gay man in America now.
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In 2016, Sebastian Mote is living a solitary suburban life as a high school art history teacher. Newly single, he throws himself into his work, serving as adviser to his northern Virginia school’s newly formed LGBTQ social group. In Let’s Get Back to the Party, we flash between the hot, sticky months of summer 2016, when Sebastian marvels at the ease with which the younger generation proclaims their sexuality, and memories of his adolescence, when as an insecure boy he found solace in the beauty of paintings and sculpture. His only friend was skinny, quiet Oscar Burnham, another boy questioning his sexual identity. They furtively explored their feelings, but when Oscar’s family moved away, he left Sebastian behind, no letters, no calls.

At a wedding in which Sebastian is his friend’s plus-one, he catches a glimpse of Oscar. A stilted conversation ensues, and Oscar spends the entire reception scrolling through a gay hookup app. Stung, Sebastian realizes he still feels abandoned by Oscar all these years later.

Their lives become entwined again as each grapples with what it means to be a middle-aged gay man, bookended by the generation that bore the brunt of the AIDS epidemic and by the kids who have come of age in a more open-minded America. Oscar and Sebastian are each pulled into a platonic yet complicated relationship with someone of another generation: Sebastian with a younger student and Oscar with an older writer made famous for his sexual exploits in 1970s New York.

Zak Salih’s first novel is a gorgeously written meditation on being a gay man in America now. He imbues Sebastian and Oscar with complexity and flaws, two men unsure about the path their life is meant to take. Salih offers a cleareyed exploration of the sometimes fine line between friendship and romance, and how past slights can rear their heads in the most unexpected ways.

Set shortly after the Supreme Court’s historic marriage equality ruling and during the year of a divisive presidential election and the Pulse nightclub massacre, Let’s Get Back to the Party is a raw and captivating debut.

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