Reading E. Lynn Harris’ books can be a scary experience if you’re a heterosexual woman. Since flipping through the pages of his debut novel, Invisible Life, three years ago, I haven’t been able to look at the men I might date in the same way. My radar is always going now, trying to catch any hint of a tendency to straddle the fence, if you know what I mean. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat one of Harris’ novels on my lap, midparagraph, because I’ve just come across a sentence that has me curiously staring into space, questioning the sexuality of a guy I’ve gone out with.
The recurrent theme of the 42-year-old author’s novels, Invisible Life, Just As I Am, And This Too Shall Pass, and his latest, If This World Were Mine, is men who conceal their ambiguous sexual orientation from their wives, girlfriends, and loved ones. Many of Harris’ male characters do not believe themselves to be gay; they justify engaging in sexual relations with other men as a passing vice that their women need not know or be concerned about. Although Harris’ novels are by no means deep or particularly fascinating reading, they give those of us not hip to the African-American male gay/bisexual lifestyle humorous, thoughtful, and often sobering insight.
Harris, who is gay, has been a pioneer of sorts in black gay literature by bringing to the forefront an aspect of black life many African-Americans shun. Invisible Life came to fruition after several months of laying out his own pain and heartache on paper. After shopping the manuscript around to several publishers and getting rejected across the board, Harris finally laid out the dough to have 5,000 copies of the book printed. He sold them from the trunk of his car to anyone who was interested. Word got around, and Harris soon found himself working out the logistics of a lucrative deal with Doubleday.
In If This World, the author once again delves into the psyche of a confused man, recurring character Basil Henderson, an ex-jock who was sexually molested by an uncle at age 9. Basil played home-wrecker roles in Harris’ previous novels, and in the new book validates my paranoia:
“Let me make one thing clear,” explains Basil. “I am not gay. I’m not even what people call bisexual. I am a pussy-loving, pussy-eating, one-hundred-percent man. Believe that. But I have on occasion strayed to the other side….When I’ve been with a dude, it wasn’t any of that crazy shit you hear about. Just them servicing me. I mean, I didn’t kiss them or anything….You’d never catch me laying up in bed with some guy reading the sports page. I don’t dig men that way.”
Explain that to your wife.
In If This World, the author complements the gay/bi/confused aspects by examining in Terry McMillanesque fashion the bliss and the bullshit that are invariably part of heterosexual and platonic relationships as well.
Harris’ five principal characters are all striving to find love in their lives. The group are all good friends, and most of them meet once a month in a journal-writing group to express thoughts and share feelings.
Basil, who is not a member of the journal group, wants to give up men and begin a committed relationship with Yolanda, a media consultant and straight-to-the-point type of sister who is all for a loving relationship but is quick to enjoy her own company if too many games are brought to the table.
Riley, an aspiring but noncapable singer, is distraught with the state of her passionless marriage and begins an Internet affair with a cyberlover who admires the poetry she sends him.
Leland, a gay psychiatrist, is Yolanda’s best buddy, and he too is looking for love since the passing of his longtime lover, Donald. He’s open to a new match, but every guy he comes across has serious “issues,” and Leland’s not ready to deal.
Dwight, the prominent heterosexual male of the group, has had problems accepting white people since he was a child: He blames two white folks for not making an effort to save his little brother, who drowned before his and his mother’s eyes. It isn’t until Dwight rescues a young white boy in a similar situation that he comes to grips with his racism. He must also deal with his homophobia toward Leland when the shrink is shot and Dwight must give blood to save his life.
The funniest and most enjoyable moments of the book are the chapters that involve the developing relationship between Basil and Yolanda. Basil has not told Yolanda about his involvement with men, even though Yolanda has been forewarned by Leland to always ask those critical questions about any new mate’s sexuality.
Although you can see the explosion between Basil and Yolanda coming miles away, it is still hilarious when Yolanda pops up unexpectedly at Basil’s apartment to find him “servicing” a dude over the coffee table.
Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Yolanda does a bit of both and vows never to trust a man too quickly again. Basil swears that if he can just talk to her one more time, he can convince her he’s not gay, that being molested by his uncle as a child has brought on this sexual “dysfunction” with men, and that he really is straight.
Of course, Yolanda isn’t hearing it, and Basil is left to examine his life and deal with the trauma of being raped.
If This World moves painfully slowly for its first hundred or so pages; there is far too much meaningless chitchat that contributes nothing to the story. It wasn’t until the last 200 pages that I began to grasp what was really going on. And the book ends in way too tidy a fashion. Leland recovers from his gunshot wounds, Riley and her husband find renewed love after she realizes that her husband was her web-lover, Yolanda begins an “honest” relationship with Dwight, and everything’s just great. Such a happily-ever-after ending doesn’t make for the most satisfying or realistic novel.
However, there is something to be said for the trails that Harris is blazing for gay African-American writers and the attention he is bringing to a lifestyle choice frowned upon by much of black America. And thanks must be extended to Harris by all his clueless and naive female readers who weren’t savvy enough to know if their men were engaging in extracurricular activities. If he walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, please let him be a duck, at least if I’m the one who’s dating him.CP