D.J. McLaurin’s hard-to-put-down, exceptionally well-written and phenomenally plotted “What If It Feels Good?” is pure old-school pop fiction with an...moreD.J. McLaurin’s hard-to-put-down, exceptionally well-written and phenomenally plotted “What If It Feels Good?” is pure old-school pop fiction with an edge. Harkening back to the better days of Danielle Steele, Sidney Sheldon, and Jeffrey Archer, and a terrific homage to Charles Dickens, Ms. McLaurin restores melodrama’s good name with a story as heart-wrenching as anything concocted by the Bronte sisters, while still maintaining a unique voice of her own with a contemporary and downright controversial slant few writers have been brave enough to traverse.
The story opens on the mean streets of Detroit. Michael Bagley is an almost too beautiful street urchin, a cross between the angelic Oliver Twist and the streetwise Artful Dodger, homeless, eating out of trashcans, surviving anyway he can. The novel opens with three telling sentences: “Men were attracted to him. At just fourteen, Michael could see it. Of course not every man was attracted to the youthful sweetness of the innocent, but there were enough of them to make a lucrative living.”
But there’s something special about Michael’s personality, as special as his unearthly beauty. Even as he half-heartedly hustles male tricks twice his age and older with mixed results, the kid’s got chutzpa and a lot of heart, with no desire to do anyone harm. He beds an older woman out of gratitude and genuine affection, his good heart earns him shared shelter under the highway with a loving homeless couple, and even his single mother, a stripper and a loving (if irresponsible) parent beset by unfortunate circumstances, benefits from his unconditional love and devotion. Ironically it is because of his protection of her (whom, against her protest, he stays away from to give her space with an abusive pimp-type) that lands him in trouble, as a gun accidentally goes off injuring his mother’s nefarious paramour.
Swirls of activities ensue at a deliciously dizzying pace—court hearings, mysterious lawyers, the sudden appearance of an unknown father, the threat of incarcerations, and custody decisions. Suddenly the court gives Michael’s biological father, Joseph Simpson, a black billionaire entertainment and media mogul from New York, an ultimatum: either assume custody of his illegitimate son, or watch the boy be remanded to Michigan state custody.
Both mother and son are devastated by the results, as Michael is whisked off to a New York mansion by a father he doesn’t know and to a stepmother and half-siblings who are less than cordial.
Without resorting to simple black-and-white stereotypes, the author creates circumstances for Michael in his new setting so emotional that tears of sadness and tears of joy are guaranteed to fly, and after being roller-coastered through every emotion imaginable you’ll jump with the bitter sweet joy of parents at their only daughter’s wedding when Michael’s ultimate relationship with his father works itself out.
Over time a bond is created between Michael and the rest of his new family, only for the now 17-year-old to enter into a deeply moving love affair with his father’s best friend, a man twenty years his senior, creating another grand crisis in a story awash with crises.
Ms. McLaurin’s handling of the delicate issue of pedophilia is nothing short of miraculous; leaving readers with conflicting views and though-provoking questions that will spark discussion long after the final page is turned.
Books like these—impossibly beautiful people, rags to riches, what price celebrity, a media eating frenzy, tawdry sex, infidelity, deep family jealousy, dark family secrets, international jet-setting, deathbed confessions, and the kitchen sink—usually have very little on their minds and are so often mere titillating stories poorly articulated (How do you say Jackie Collins-Judith Krantz?), but in “What If It Feels Good?” D.J. McLaurin has cracked the secret recipe for writing an intelligent and literate potboiler.
It is almost a cliché’ to say that I didn’t want this book to end. Well it also happens to be a fact. What a hellifiliscious read. What a hellifiliscious writer. I wait anxiously for whatever she comes up with next. (less)
Back in the early 1990s, a handsome, young, and affable African American graduate student and teacher found himself nervously attending his first gay...moreBack in the early 1990s, a handsome, young, and affable African American graduate student and teacher found himself nervously attending his first gay strip club to see a live performance by his favorite porn star. Here, customers were allowed to freely fondle the naked dancers. Openly gay but a gay-sex virgin, nervous and slightly apprehensive, Craig Seymour gets his good friend Seth to accompany him.
Excitement soon replaces apprehension and Seymour finds himself falling in love with the clubs as well as his good friend Seth, to whom he ultimately surrenders his virginity. They become live-in lovers.
But as the strip clubs are becoming an ever-growing obsession, our hero is able to appease both his lover and his jones by making strip clubs the topic of his master’s thesis, with the cautious approval of his school adviser.
Now a club regular, Seymour interviews and gets to know a cast of characters as colorful and crudely affectionate as anything in a Bob Fosse musical.
His first interview subject is dancer Jake the Guess Model, a straight ‘gay-for-pay’ former construction worker who tells his customers he is bi ‘because [they] like to think there’s a chance.’
And then there is Dave, a customer just out of a twenty-one-year monogamous heterosexual marriage and now having the time of his life hanging at the clubs and fondling beautiful young male dancers dangling their eye-level rock hard jewels for his perusal approval.
Dave’s favorite dancer is Matt who sports leather chaps publicizing everything usually known as ‘privates.’
Sassy drag queens, dirty old men, sugar daddies, and dis-effected club owners abound throughout this breezy, affectionate tome.
Author Seymour also learns of and writes about D.C.’s rich gay history, dating back to the 1800s. Then, knowledge of fifty-year-old poet Walt Whitman’s love affair with Irish immigrant Peter Doyle, thirty years his junior, was as casual as the then published stories of sexual liaisons between black and white men in Lafayette Square “under the shadows of the White House.”
The story of how the gay strip club scene began in the 1960s, where dancers could legally bare all, is beautifully told. The owner of a local bar on O Street, Chesapeake House, offers a pair of sailors $50 each to strip down and dance for his patrons. Soon the club is drawing huge crowds that include the likes of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Rock Hudson. Other clubs (as well as bath houses) soon open and prosper on O Street, the city’s gay red light district.
Although Mr. Seymour’s depth and fascinating chronicle of how this charmingly tawdry industry evolves is both interesting and informative, it is his personal transition from thesis writer to booty dancer that makes his memoir a thoroughly entertaining read.
Likable and self-effacing, the author writes thoughtfully, ironically, and humorously about his second job:
“…get on stage, disrobe quickly, try to get a hard-on, and then walk out among the customers, who for a tip—generally a buck—got to stroke, fondle, poke, and prod [your] bod. It was more like sex than dancing, and it had become my job.”
He also writes with great care and much soul-searching about maintaining his monogamous relationship with Seth while almost every night allowing strangers and regulars to feel him up.
Seymour’s partner is more trusting than most, and it is admirable that the author repays that trust with honesty and a form of fidelity.
However, after six years of being with the only man he’s known sexually, the author approaches his partner with a proposition that dooms the romance, if not the friendship.
With the cocaine bust of Mayor Marion Barry, a champion of D.C.’s liberal sexual exhibition laws, restrictions are shortly thereafter imposed on the strip clubs. Customers are no longer allowed to fondle dancers, and dancers aren’t allowed to fondle themselves. This, of course, cuts into everyone’s income, and author Seymour, now single and sparked on by the success of his thesis, embarks upon a career as an entertainment journalist, which eventually takes him to New York. Thanks to his unique literary gift and ability to ask his celebrity interviewee’s frank and probing questions, he quickly ascends the ranks.
His ability to get such stars as Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, and Mariah Carey to open up and discuss such things as masturbation, size-queendom, secret babies, cheating boyfriends, and mental depression are shocking, revealing, and often quite poignant. His discussion with TLC’s Lisa Lopez regarding her romance with Tupac, his death, her premonition of her own death, is particularly moving. Craig Seymour’s keen observations of human behavior, particular with regards to his celebrity subjects, are empathetic and caring, always intelligent, never fawning.
Eventually, Mr. Seymour’s busy schedule—writing for The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Vibe, the Buffalo News, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to name a few—becomes all-consuming, making it nearly impossible for him to have a personal life.
He re-thinks academia, and eventually returns to the University of Maryland to finish his Ph.D. While working as a professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, he hears that the old strip clubs on O Street will be torn down. He returns for a bittersweet farewell that brings him full circle. The year is 2006.
Craig Seymour’s warm, witty, and honestly rendered self-examination of his seemingly unlikely but totally plausible life as grad student turned gay stripper, turned journalist, turned college professor, is quite the odyssey, and quite a lesson for us all. There is so much life out there for all of us to enjoy. This story reminds me of the famous quote from Auntie Mame: “Life’s a banquet but most poor sons-of-bitches starve to death!”
Author Craig Seymour definitely heard the dinner bell. (less)
From a place in between heaven and earth fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon casually describes her December 6, 1973 rape and murder by a neighbor. Over th...moreFrom a place in between heaven and earth fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon casually describes her December 6, 1973 rape and murder by a neighbor. Over the course of several years, she dispassionately, yet meticulously, observes her family and friends attempting to cope with their grief and loss. She even observes her murderer-rapist with indeed an understandable desire for him to be caught and brought to justice, but also a deft fascination with the history of this classic sociopath borne from an emotionality deformed by a mother reminiscent of Ma Barker.
For the next 328 pages Susie, more or less resigned to her life, or should I say afterlife, chronicles for us the journey her family and friends on earth must take to ultimately find some kind of healing.
Susie tour-guides us through the ramifications of her death with a strange but effective detachment, although at times her voice seems a tad mature for a fourteen-year-old whose personal heaven stays truer to her age than do her words.
Still, what we have here is a first-person observation of intimate feelings and actions of others easily achievable in a third-person narrative, but more difficult to pull off in this format.
Novelist Alice Sebold, however, pulls it off admirably, made easier because her narrator is a spirit, able to observe unnoticed a grieving father’s solitary anguish over the fact that his daughter’s brutal murder is exacerbated by the discovery of a piece of the girl’s elbow, her only recovered remains; the intimacy of a grieving mother’s escape into the pitying arms of another man who, himself, has lost a family member (his wife) tragically.
Young dead Susie is also able to watch Ray, the first and last boy she ever kissed, suffer through veiled accusations of culpability in the murder while still trying to deal with the strong feelings he felt, continues to feel, for his lost love. Susie observes him with initial detachment, but ultimately succumbs to her own deep feelings, resulting in a surrogate consummation that is at once spiritually uplifting and profoundly sad.
But what is most startling is Susie’s monitoring of her murderer-rapist, the neighbor Mr. Harvey. Eccentric but seemingly inconsequential, Harvey is a parent’s worse nightmare who leaves nary a clue to his nefarious ways. And so it takes Susie on high to examine every detail and thought of this quiet monster, a serial killer whose past and future victims Susie commiserates with in the spiritual realm. With the calm of a PGA commentator she chronicles his every move, even as he attempts to lure Susie’s still alive sister toward a similar fate.
Although “The Lovely Bones” is not your garden-variety blood-gushing slasher tome, its horror oozes from raw emotions put to the test by a tragic event no one should but someone will always have to endure.
I don’t know at what age young people should read this strange but cautionary tale, but it contains lessons in great need of heading by youth and parents alike. (less)
In the afterglow of New York State’s new law legalizing gay marriage, Darlyne Baugh’s effervescent roman à clef “Black Girl @ The Gay Channel” takes o...moreIn the afterglow of New York State’s new law legalizing gay marriage, Darlyne Baugh’s effervescent roman à clef “Black Girl @ The Gay Channel” takes on new meaning as an homage to romance, friendship and family in all their different configurations. It also shines a pink light on dirty office politics, sexual shenanigans, and back-stabbings as vicious as anything in straight corporate America.
Our sassy and very witty narrator is Charlene Thomas, a post Jenny Craig Jennifer Hudson look-alike. She is the single and determined mother of two adorable pre-teens and needs a job desperately to keep her little middle-class Brooklyn brood fed, clothed, schooled and pampered. Warren, her ex-husband and philandering culprit in their traumatic divorce, is constantly late with child support payments but right on time with ghetto swaggering homophobia.
She takes a job as an Executive Assistant at The Gay Channel and becomes somewhat of an Alice in this Wonderland of zany mostly white gay characters as colorful as the fashion designers and clothes horses that galloped through the halls of Runway Magazine in “The Devil Wears Prada.”
To Charlene it’s a job with benefits for her and her kids, all politics aside, but as The Gay Channel becomes a media sensation, she gets caught up in the nuances and poignancies of a community she previously knew little about. Slowly but surely she becomes a champion of gay rights, and moves up the corporate ladder at The Gay Channel.
But it is her work environment ex-hubby Warren uses to file for sole custody of their children, not wanting them reared around “faggots and freaks.”
The impending trail causes Charlene great anxiety, but she is supported by Clayton, the new man in her life, an almost too-good-to-be-true head of security at The Gay Channel.
Although Baugh’s very romantic novel is filled with loving same gender-loving couples, lesbian mothers experiencing the joy of childbirth, and fierce declarations of marriage before it’s legality, it is Charlene and Clayton’s love story we cheer so loudly, and are nearly brought to tears when it seems that all will be lost between them.
There are many characters and circumstances we’ll get to know at The Gay Channel who seem more than a little familiar. The channel itself is obviously The Logo Channel (where author Baugh once worked), Jerome is a tall, skinny black filmmaker (how do you say Patrik-Ian Polk?) whose all-black show, Sex and the Pretty Black Boys, ends up the number one show on the all-white line-up, just as Noah’s Arc dominated the line-up at Logo.
But Ms. Baugh has dressed this docu-comedy up to the nines. One unexpected outrageous situation follows another and there are as many laugh-out-loud moments as there are heart wrenching ones. It was a real treat being in the mind, heart and soul of a straight black woman learning about the same gender-loving community with all its ups and downs, dirty laundry and touching endearments.
As razor sharp as some of Ms. Baugh’s barbs are, and they truly are, she is a gentle observer of the overriding basic good found in everyone, well almost everyone. There is one nasty little piss-elegant Bitch Queen who is such a nasty piece of work that he’s a real laugh riot, but major props to the author for giving many of the characters redemptive moves, particularly some of the black straight and down low characters.
I really liked this book and hope that gays and straights alike read it and connect with Ms. Baugh’s sly can-we-all-get-along beam of light shining through all the comedy and camp. And if you’re an old softy like me, the ending scene between Charlene and her eleven-year-old daughter will make you want to track Miss Thing down and give her a great big gay hug.
“Damages,” a brutally honest and poetically eloquent memoir by Yugoslavian-born Bazhe DeKargo, is nothing short of brilliant! This first time book aut...more“Damages,” a brutally honest and poetically eloquent memoir by Yugoslavian-born Bazhe DeKargo, is nothing short of brilliant! This first time book author (he’s written and has published several poems and short prose pieces) is as self-assured and self-examining as anything by Didion, the biographical Gordon Parks, and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”
An orphan adopted from a Macedonian facility by an important and staunch Communist Official and his beautiful but barren wife, the infant Bazhe is reared in comfort, privilege, and under the iron-thumb of a wife and child-abuser. A talented and strikingly beautiful little boy, after giving public performances for scores of spectators on several occasions, bets are taken on whether Bazhe is a boy or a girl. The child is then made to drop his pants and reveal his male genitalia.
Labeled ‘sissy’ and often beaten in school because of his privilege and beauty, he even suffers a harrowing abuse at the hands of his father when his mother is away. Upon refusing to eat fatty meat during a meal, seven-year-old Bazhe is beaten by his father who then stuff’s his member in the boy’s mouth, choking him with the fluids of his ejaculation.
But most of the horrors and heartbreaks of this ultimately brave and resilient young man’s life come later in this well-written, often brutal, but never gratuitous autobiography of a beautiful young man growing up gay and effeminate in a culture where such nature and appearance is illegal and met with great physical and verbal abuse.
Bazhe is a legal immigrant living in New Jersey when he gets the call from his mother Kostadina that his father has died. Feeling free of the iron fist of the man she hated most of the years she was married to him, Kostadina encourages Bazhe not to come for the funeral.
But a month later Bazhe returns to Macedonia to help his mother with family affairs, only to realize that she has been hiding her own serious illness from him.
With admirable devotion and against his mother’s protestations, he stays to nurse her through her illness, which turns out to be colon cancer. The first half of the book is Bazhe’s almost too-painful-to-read detailing of his caring for his mother and his guilt over his obsessive thirty-year search for his birth mother.
He actually finds his biological mother, the still beautiful and statuesque Mila who gave birth to him when she was fifteen years old after being raped by a government official in her native Croatia and, pressured by her family, turned the new born over to an orphanage.
Bitterness and regret clash uneasily as Mila and Bazhe meet. While Kostadina lays dying in her downstairs bedroom (but never unattended by her devoted son), Bazhe, not wanting her to feel that her position as his true mother is questioned, hides Mila upstairs where, over several days, he tells her the story of the life he lived and the life she missed.
And what a story it is indeed. Starting with his lonely childhood and adolescence, he reveals to her his first gay experience in the army, the scandal that he caused at the College of National Security, resulting in his expulsion, and his escape to Turkey.
There he was abducted, robbed, beaten, and raped by a pair of nefarious locals, and reduced to near starvation and homelessness before being rescued by Genghis, a wealthy Turkish bon vivant. Genghis falls madly in love and transforms Bazhe into a stunningly beautiful and high-class transvestite, replete with the requisite high-end jewelry, designer wardrobe, exclusive spa treatments, and plenty of spending money.
But sudden revelations about, and unexpected demands from Genghis send Bazhe fleeing back to his homeland, a country on the verge of great change and turmoil as the Bosnian-Serbian conflict begins to boil over.
No longer a transvestite but decidedly androgynous, Bazhe wanders into the underworld gay scene where ‘Aunts’ (self-identified, usually flamboyant homosexual men) entertained ‘trade’ in bushes, public parks, and public restrooms, often resulting in unspeakable violence from both policemen and sadistic partners.
After nearly losing his life at the hands of a sadist pick-up, Bazhe immigrates to the United States where he lives until he gets the call from his mother regarding his father’s death.
Bazhe’s birth mother is moved by this fantastical tale not told totally to anyone else. But a certain closure is attained here, and the young man reaffirms what he has always known: blood does not necessarily make a mother.
His devotion to his adoptive mother, his ‘real’ mother, is the power that fuels this terrific book. His caring for her on her deathbed is so completely loved-filled, that by the time she dies in his arms, our tears flow as uncontrollably as his.
Indeed, this is the story of one individual damaged by so much of life’s cruelties and injustices, but it is ultimately a tale of survival and the triumph of the spirit.
In spite of everything he was made to endure, Bazhe proves to be a person of great conviction and resilience. His story is a lesson for us all on when we fall down (or get knocked down) how to damn well get back up. Highly recommend.
Poet G. Winston James makes a remarkable fiction debut with SHAMING THE DEVIL, a collection of short stories that examine black, predominantly homoero...more Poet G. Winston James makes a remarkable fiction debut with SHAMING THE DEVIL, a collection of short stories that examine black, predominantly homoerotic experiences with beauty, passion and a boldness that renders it both transcendental and deeply personal. One need not be gay or black to enjoy these well-honed nuggets of literary art that twist, turn, enthrall, and provoke in ways that only a poet can. Mr. James is not merely a fantastic storyteller and thinker but a wordsmith Michelangelo whose nearly every sentence is painstakingly crafted into well-cut diamonds. Forgive the hyperbole, but I am simply overwhelmed.
The collection opens with UNCLE, innocently, even sweetly, narrated by a little boy celebrating his sixth birthday while his body celebrates feelings for his uncle that he does not understand. An empathy-inducing reminiscence of new and uninformed sensations, desires and longings, it will take many a reader back to those first frightening and fantastic pre-pubescent shivers engendered by the very presence of a hero-worshipped same sex relative.
While RAHEN (my personal favorite) boldly tackles gay bashing and rivets until the heartbreaking end, CONFINING ROOM flips the script on ‘homie’-sexuality. And take note of this beautifully written phrase from THE SPACE BETWEEN: “He opens her with four fingers. He speaks rivers inside her. She does not know what to do with her hands. The rest of her body. Or the thoughts, like famine and harvest, roiling in her head.”
UNDER AN EARLY AUTUMN MOON is the tale of a late night tryst with a surprising twist set in the fuckable landscape of a public park. PATH and SICK DAYS are thematically linked both in tone and content; tracking the light hearted—-in fact downright hysterical—escapades of a metrosexual homosexual’s quest for transient trade and the attended consequences of infidelity.
JOHN poignantly examines a self-loather’s confrontation with his demons via a therapist and a hustler, and although I’m not much of a fan of sadomasochism, I found SOMEWHERE NEARBY brilliant in its mix of cruel sex, brutal assault, intellectualism and the power of brooding self-examination at death’s door.
A seventeen-year-old boy weathers a violent physical and psychological storm in his native Jamaica as his older gay brother, banished years earlier by a now-absent father, lays dying of AIDS in the brief but powerful STORM. And CHURCH returns a prodigal world traveler to his hometown congregation where his moving revelation restores faith in a true and loving God.
This twelve-story collection ends with THE EMBRACE, a bright and buoyant story of three friends and their sexual fantasies that slowly turn erotically haunting when one of them introduces another to a mysterious lothario. THE EMBRACE is sure to leave you breathless.
As in any story collection, some are better than others. But there is not a weak one in this bunch, as the author gives each narrator a unique voice, each story its own fascinating twist, and writing as appealingly grandiose and artful as Morrison and Baldwin.
Indeed, Baldwin and Thomas Glave are the only BGM writers to win the prestigious O. Henry Prize for Short Fiction. Based on the better of these stories in SHAMING THE DEVIL, it would not surprise me one bit if G. Winston James was chosen to make this a literary trinity. (less)
Gene Naro’s Dynasty-esque debut novel simmers with enough family turmoil, sexual intrigue, high stakes corporate wheeling and dealing and greed, lies,...moreGene Naro’s Dynasty-esque debut novel simmers with enough family turmoil, sexual intrigue, high stakes corporate wheeling and dealing and greed, lies, deceits, jealousy, and shocking revelations to make Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins sit up in their graves.
This tightly-pace, pop-lit American saga is a worthy, highly entertaining read in spite of some minor missteps.
Set during the Clinton presidency, UNSPOKEN is the story of handsome and moody Duke University graduate Dan O’Brien, and his search for self as he attempts to break free from the domineering, but well-intentioned clutches of his control-freak father Jack, the mega-millionaire CEO of North Carolina Bank & Trust Company.
Secretly in love with his childhood best friend, Latino hottie Mike, Dan, against his father’s bristling objections, follows Mike to New York, only to find out that hetero Mike’s affections for him are purely platonic, in spite of some God-I-was-drunk-last-night horseplay.
Devastated, Dan sets out on his own, traversing the mean streets of the Big Apple where he finally ends up rooming with Marty, sometimes known as Mary, a gorgeous black part-time transgender dominatrix, who becomes his friend and protector.
New York City proves as daunting for this sheltered little North Carolinian as it did for the naïve protagonist in Stevie Wonder’s classic LIVING FOR THE CITY. Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll send poor Dan into a tailspin of conflicting emotions and sensibilities. And because he refuses to accept help from his wealthy parents, even using an assumed name to disguise his well-healed family connections, his meager financial circumstances force him into accepting work as a male escort, with near tragic result, save for Marty’s intervention.
23-year-old Dan then meets 46-year-old Steve, a wealthy corporate lawyer and estranged family friend who is unaware of Dan’s lineage. Steve, sexually attracted to the young stud, arranges a legitimate modeling audition for Dan, who himself is genuinely attracted to this older Prince Charming. Dan becomes a modeling hit, even as heat percolates between him and Steve, resulting in a May-December romance ultimately complicated by some rather shocking unspoken one-degree-of-separation family connections.
In the meantime, high drama is sizzling on Wall Street as Dan’s super-rich daddy struggles to maintain control of the banking empire his family has controlled for decades, even as his wife, Carolyn, stays silent on thing’s she knows about his indiscretions that he doesn’t know she knows about.
And herein lie the meaning of the title and the theme of the book. So much unhappiness comes from things left unspoken; lies by omission, communication muted by denial. Author Naro does a great job of pleading his case and disseminating his dissertation. It is to his credit that, as sad as all these characters are, we stay with them; sympathize with them, even as we become frustrated with their lack of forthcomingness.
One of the problems I have with Mr. Naro’s otherwise worthy novel is that UNSPOKEN is ironically dialogue top-heavy. These characters talk, talk, talk like escapees from a sad mad-cap 1940’s flick, oftentimes telling us what happened instead of allowing us to experience what happened.
And as much as I enjoyed the younger-man-older-man-family-man conceit, I longed for a deeper emotional examination of this very complicated situation, having been spoiled by D. J. McLaurin’s masterful handling of this same kind of thing in her brilliant novel WHAT IF IT FEELS GOOD.
Also, as much as I enjoyed the Marty character, I think it’s time to retire the good black best friend from ‘Mammy’ duty.
But in spite of these minor qualms, Gene Naro has done a wonderful freshman job. A talented writer and storyteller, his sophomore effort should be much anticipated (less)
As well demonstrated in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, there is nothing so exhilarating and tragic as young love struggling to blossom under the suff...more As well demonstrated in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, there is nothing so exhilarating and tragic as young love struggling to blossom under the suffocating cloud of bacchanalian bigotry masquerading as stringent tradition. In homage to The Bard, first time novelist Charles Rice-Gonzalez has come up with a heartbreaking and ultimately triumphant coming-out and coming-of-age story of one such love.
Chulito is a beautiful and well-liked fifteen-year-old Puerto Rican high school dropout living in the thick of things in his vibrant, ultra-testosterone South Bronx hood. The girls love him (although he has yet to make any serious move beyond playful flirtation), he is a devoted and wonderful son to his loving mother, and he makes plenty of money as a runner for his mentor Kamikaze, the local drug dealer. Eventually, he loses his virginity through a rite-of-passage ménage au trio when Kamikaze invites him to share a local girl. It is a life-altering encounter for our young hero, as he claims his macho cred with the act and yet is confused by the thrall he experiences witnessing his male mentor’s naked physicality.
Chulito’s life is further complicated by the return of Carlos to the hood on summer vacation from his Long Island college. Carlos and Chulito had been best friends since childhood, but polar opposite trajectories—Carlos, having been double-promoted out of high school, is now, at seventeen, in his second year of college and will spend the summer interning at the New York Daily News; Chulito, hanging with the street life as one of the boys—has caused them to draw apart, much to Chulito’s dismay. Circumstances are further complicated by the not un-false rumors that Carlos is a pato (a ‘faggot’).
Carlos’ return home is met with a chorus of neighborhood taunts, that, in spite of Chulito’s desire to rekindle their friendship, Chulito reluctantly joins in.
Still, Chulito cannot deny what is in his heart, and secretly makes attempts to recharge the friendship he and Carlos once had, only for Chulito to realize that there is something much more brewing between the two of them. Time and again, Chulito tries to express his feelings to Carlos, and those numerous expressions, awkward, but heartfelt, represent some of the best writing in this poignantly romantic book. Listening to a sixteen-year-old-Chulito trying to make sense of his feelings will have you in tears, and the secret kiss he and Carlos share will have you cheering.
Still Chulito’s worlds collide as his ideas of being a young man, being macho, and being in love are challenged, and as he struggles with his feelings, we struggle right along with him, even as his struggle to maintain his place in the macho world of denial sometimes pales next to Carlos’ fierce pride, personal dignity, and unflinching self-love. But it is because of his deep affection for Carlos that Chulito ultimately faces his conflicts, faces his family and faces his friends with honesty and truth, and goes from being one of the boys to being a proud young man.
Beautifully peppered with colorful characters, rich dialogue, and raw sentimentality, one is drawn into Chulito’s world with a deep caring, as so much that happens is relatable and universal.
I was thoroughly touched by the skill, humanity and heart of Mr. Rice-Gonzalez’ writing and story-telling. With Chulito, my favorite book of 2011, he has created a character, a world, and a cause that are all worth cheering about. His message that love, particularly self-love, is always worth it, in deflecting the slings and arrows of lesser loving souls, is a powerful affirmation, told in a skillful and entertaining way. Bravo!
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos maintains his reputation with this lovely coming-of-age tale of a Cuban-American 16-year-old who drops...morePulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos maintains his reputation with this lovely coming-of-age tale of a Cuban-American 16-year-old who drops out of school and escapes the mean streets, hopeless educational institutions, and a stifling (if loving) family in late 1960’s Harlem and seeks sanctuary on a friend’s farm in rural Wisconsin.
Teenager Rico Fuentes, our smart and hopeful narrator, is getting hassled from every angle. The son of dark-skinned Cuban immigrants, Rico’s light skin, light hair, hazel eyes, freckles (an anomalous throwback to an Irish great-grandfather), and sometimes Poindexter demeanor, earn him playful-to-cruel ridicule from his Latin homies (taunting him with the ironic moniker ‘Dark Dude’) and the frequent jacking of his lunch money and an occasional beat-down from black schoolmates who mistake him for ‘whitey.’
A gifted writer and an avid reader of comic books and American lit (he reads Huckleberry Finn over and over again); Rico has found some refuge in the cloak of fantasy he has cocooned himself in. But his talented artist friend Jimmy’s rapid decent into serious drug abuse exacerbated by vicious beatings from a monstrous father and the sight of a teen shot dead on his high school campus, makes Rico re-assess his situation.
Gilberto, a wonderful big-brother figure to Rico, had earlier won a small lottery prize of $75,000. After taking care of his mother, playing a Puerto Rican Santa Claus to the children in the neighborhood, and even giving Rico a couple of thousand dollars, Gilberto moves to Wisconsin, enrolls in a college there, and sets his sights on a better life.
This is Rico’s chance. He and Jimmy leave their families—two teenage runaways—and hitchhike to Gilberto’s open arms on a broken down farmhouse in rural Wisconsin.
Gilberto, truly one of the good guys, becomes less a big-brother figure and more a father figure as he enlists the two teens in good old fashion salt-of-the-earth labor like painting the farmhouse and regular duty shoveling out the outhouse.
Many life lessons, some as harsh as shoveling shit, are also learned during their year of boot camp in the boonies, and it is a credit to the author that he speaks with such youthful wonderment and discovery through his street smart but very articulate young narrator.
Not your typical fish-out-of-water story, this is not a tale that condescends to the stereotypes of life in the heartland, but celebrates it in all it’s wonderfully confounding Americaness.
Rico grows up, discovers love, identifies priorities, and recognizes who he really is and what he really is, allowing him to grab hold of himself, all of himself, before it slips away; his rich Cuban heritage in particular, and his status as a ‘Dark Dude’ as well.
What Rico Fuentes learns on a Wisconsin farm is that you can go home again (less)
Of the top five major cities in America, Los Angeles is arguably the least ghettoized. In its core metropolis few neighborhoods have an overwhelming p...moreOf the top five major cities in America, Los Angeles is arguably the least ghettoized. In its core metropolis few neighborhoods have an overwhelming predominance of one ethnic/cultural/social group over another. Particularly when it comes to people of color. African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Caribbeans, Eastern Europeans, whites, straights, openly gay men and lesbians, Muslims, Jews and folks of every imaginable multi-racial/multi-cultural combination comfortably share—there are exceptions of course—common walls, fences, block parties, neighborhood watches, schools, restaurants, nightclubs, barbershops, day care centers, public pools, and gossip. Even one of the city’s most popular churches, Agape’, boasts an SRO rainbow coalition each Sunday morning. L.A. is quintessential Obamaland.
It is against this colorful backdrop of this ditzy but delightful city where no one is really black or white, that Frederick Smith sets his ditzy but delightful sophomore novel, “Right Side of the Wrong Bed,” a story where, too, nothing is really black or white or exactly what it may seem.
When it comes to love our narrator Kenny Kane, a handsome thirty-three-year-old African American and otherwise intelligent college administrator, is an educated fool. Not only did he not see it coming, but financed court cost and paternity suit battles leveled against DeVon, his drop dead gorgeous firefighter partner of six years who had at least three children by two different baby-mamas during the time of their ‘committed’ relationship. Only after all of this does Kenny put the brother out of his sprawling home in the toney hills of Monterey Park.
Five months later at a gay bar in West Hollywood, Kenny is hit on by Jeremy Lopez, a six feet tall, baggy low-rise jean wearing, twenty-one-year-old Mexican/Dominican straight up East L.A. hottie boy-toy. Sparks fly and before he knows what hit him, Kenny is caught up in a whirlwind of sex and romance with the youngster.
But one incident after another involving drunken club hopping, police-raided frat parties, jealous ex’s, arson investigations, unexplained hickies, and the plain old capriciousness of youth, keep Kenny in a tailspin. Even as his best friend Carlos, and his mother caution him about being on the right side of the wrong bed (“Do I have to come down there and slap some sense into you?” straight-shooting Mom warns), Kenny is, alas, stuck on stupid when it comes to Jeremy.
And one can almost see why. Almost. Aside from his golden good looks, Jeremy is a passionate lover who is sexually talented and accommodating in every way imaginable. He is young and proud, a young macho homosexual very much in touch with his sensitive side, and not the least bit concerned with public displays of affection when it comes to his man which he lavishes with hugs and sloppy kisses at taco stands, in front of chi-chi gyms, at family gatherings, on campus, anywhere he feels like it, which is everywhere, knowing that his youthfulness is giving his older lover a new shot in the arm.
And Jeremy is very smart for his age (if not very mature), and talented; a gifted poet who was a contestant on “Teen Jeopardy.” He is loyal to his friends and family (if not to his lovers, of which there are many) and dedicated to his college studies and efficient at his job as a student affairs aide for a city college.
But the kid has a lot of problems, most of them related to just growing up. Eventually we realize that Kenny has not grown up either, as he forgives almost every unforgivable transgression and totes too much of Jeremy’s devil-may-care baggage, not to mention a lot of his own, time and time again.
But as exasperating as Kenny can be (like his mother, we want to slap some sense into him too) the poor guy is just unlucky in love, even though he tends to bring the bad luck on himself.
There are hints in the story that even before Kenny’s cheating fireman, he was batting zero in the romance department although he’d been up to bat numerous times. As we listen closely to his narration, we come to realize that Kenny is just a poor sap in deep denial who should have stayed a little longer in therapy he was once undergoing.
The story breezes along gleefully though, fueled by Kenny’s endearing, if frustrating emotional bumbling, and Jeremy’s charming and irresponsible youth. But just when it seems that there may be a glimmer of hope for these May-December lovers, tragedy strikes, adding an unexpected but deeply moving poignancy.
Late in the story, writer Smith gives Kenny a beautifully rendered thought on all the beds we occupy through life, and how we must take responsibility for the beds we make for ourselves (even though emotionally, I doubt Kenny ever bothered to change a sheet). Nonetheless, this is the best piece of writing in a novel that overall consists of wonderful and easily digestible prose; fast paced, at times funny, very conversational, and humane.
I suppose that’s what makes us like Kenny, in spite of all his missteps, bad judgments, and denial; and why we like Jeremy, in spite of all his naughty, childish little ways. They both possess that special save: humanity.