Thursday, June 28, 2007

When Anyone Says “God”, I Keep My Hand Over My Wallet

E. Lynn Harris is improving as a writer. I read several of his earlier novels, mainly out of a sense of duty, trying to keep my finger on the queer zeitgeist. He’s very much in the Harlequin tradition, African-American subdivision, except that his sculpted Nubian princes fall in love with each other. If we could just get a gay black Jennifer Crusie, now, I’d be a major fan. But Harris has the worst tin ear for English prose since Rita Mae Brown (though he’s improving), and his brand-name dropping gets on my nerves. Do novels do product placements like movies do? If so, most of the production costs of I Say a Little Prayer could have been covered before it got to the publisher:
I thought about taking an Excedrin PM, but instead I put on Luther Vandross’s Dance With My Father CD, slipped back into bed, and hoped that Luther’s voice could soothe me back to sleep.

We’d planned to go to the bar at the Ritz-Carlton and eat a nice dinner to celebrate the deal with Wal-Mart. [Don’t ask.]

I took out my wallet and dropped my jeans again, kicked off my Timbs, and unbuttoned my black starched shirt.
[I guess the jeans manufacturer didn’t pony up enough for a product placement.]
Not only that, but Michael Eric Dyson and Keith Boykin make cameo appearances in the novel. But that is an improvement. As the story proceeds, the brand names appear with less monotony, and the story moves ahead vigorously, hardly tripping over the prose at all. I think it’s because Harris is getting – bless me – political.

Briefly, then: fine brotha Chauncey Greer, age 38, has never gotten over his great adolescent love, the equally fine Damien “Sweet D” Upchurch, with whom he’d formed the boy group Reunion in the 1980s, when they were both in high school. As the group approached stardom, Chauncey was purged from the group and hasn’t sung since. Eventually he founded Cute Boy Card Company, and is doing well, even to the point of signing a contract as a Wal-Mart supplier. (I can’t make up my mind whether Harris has a sense of irony, but I don’t think so. Despite their throbbing religiosity, his characters are hardcore capitalists with no evident qualms.) Now he plays the field, refusing to let any man get too close, no matter how muscular his body or how many inches he’s packing.

I Say a Little Prayer (great title; I prefer Aretha’s version to Dionne’s myself) goes beyond the Harris fiction I’ve read before, for when an antigay minister with Senate aspirations comes to preach at a revival at Chauncey’s church (it’s tiny, only a few hundred members), Chauncey joins the resistance. Gay and gay-friendly members of the church boycott the revival, and Chauncey gives up a chance to kickstart his renewed singing career by refusing to sing for the bigots, coming out to his family and friends at the alternative Day Of Absence service. This is pretty militant stuff for Harris, and I was moved to tears by the courage of Chauncey and his allies. He’s still fairly closeted by my Greyboy Liberationist standards, but everyone starts somewhere.

So, I Say a Little Prayer worked quite well for me. As I indicated, Harris still focuses on conventionally masculine men with sculpted bodies, massive members, and designer wardrobes. Chauncey attends a sex party at a private club in a “mini mansion … advertised as a private party with only fifty members invited and … offering the finest black men in Atlanta on the DL. It even included the disclaimer of ‘no queens allowed.’” He has to show hard at the door before they’ll admit him, but eternal vigilance pays off “in a carnival of handsome men with perfect bodies.” This is all very well, and not too distracting in a novel, but someday I’d like to read a story about gay men – we do exist – who go wild for non-types, men with bodies that don’t fit a particular mold, not even Bears. And Harris gives a lot of space to Skylar, a friend of Chauncey’s notable for his utter fearlessness and tackiness. (Oh, Mary, it takes a fairy to make something tacky!) Skylar plays Sutherland to Chauncey’s Malone, undercutting his guilt and gloom with queeny abandon:
“I just want all of this over. I want my life to be normal again,” I sighed.
“What’s normal besides a city in Illinois?” Skylar laughed.
Without Skylar, I Say a Little Prayer would be a dreary, if politically earnest read.

I’m usually pretty tolerant of the flaunting of religiosity, and it doesn’t really hurt I Say a Little Prayer that much. But still, for the record, I don’t believe black folks when they claim to know what God thinks or wants, any more than I believe white folks when they claim to know it. I don’t believe queerfolk who claim to speak for God any more than I believe straight folks. If there is a god with opinions that it wants us earthlings to know, it’s time to dispense with the middlemen and women, and let us know directly just what it wants of us. (No interviews, either; a deity doesn't need a press secretary.) Then we can decide if we’ll cooperate. I agree with Terry Pratchetts Granny Weatherwax, who, when reminded by Nanny Ogg that gods do after all exist, snaps, “That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ‘em.”