Boys Come First by Aaron Foley

Three gay, Black, millennial men in Detroit face romantic, professional and existential challenges together in this deeply engaging novel about the importance of friendship.

With Boys Come First, Aaron Foley (How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass) offers a delightful novel about romantic and career ambitions, friendship and the particular charms of and challenges faced by gay Black millennial men in Detroit. Chapters alternate perspectives among a lovable trio of friends.

Readers first meet Dominick as he departs New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in a fluster: the start-up advertising firm he’d taken a chance on has just failed, immediately before he walked in on his boyfriend of eight years with another man. Dom flees home to Detroit to lick his wounds and reconnect with his old friend Troy. Troy teaches sixth grade at a charter school, eschewing his father’s considerable wealth in favor of giving back to the community, but he’s frustrated in his relationship with a domineering boyfriend, and the school’s charter is now under threat. Feeling a little stagnant, Troy has just picked up a mild-to-moderate cocaine habit. Meanwhile, Troy’s college friend Remy has styled himself as “Mr. Detroit,” a real estate prodigy and local celebrity: outwardly successful, but struggling to find meaningful connection with a partner who wants more than sex. (Remy oozes style, so it suits his character that his chapters are the only ones written in first person.) Remy likes sex, no mistake–each of the friends does, but each is also in search of something more meaningful.

Dom and Remy hit it off, and the boys’ club is complete. With group texts and happy hours around town, they support each other through messy hookups via dating app, professional disappointments and workplace microaggressions, heartbreaks and more. That is, until Remy’s latest development opportunity conflicts with Troy’s local advocacy. In Dom’s mind, “when you’re Black, gay, and thirtysomething, time always feels like it’s running out,” and these men feel both in-common and individual pressures to which any reader can relate.

Boys Come First is rich in flavor and detail, benefiting from Remy’s comprehensive knowledge of Motor City neighborhoods, Troy’s hyperlocal concerns for his school and Dom’s perspective as he returns from afar. The changing demographics of contemporary Detroit, by class but most pointedly by race, are front and center. Foley’s novel shows range, with its fun, silly and pathos-filled handling of the love-and-sex storylines, serious commentary on social issues and an endearing representation of sincere (if troubled) friendships. Unforgettable characters, madcap fun and mishaps converge in this sweet and, finally, aspirational story.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 glasses of Lambrusco.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Real Life centers around Wallace, a biochemistry graduate student in an unnamed Midwestern town. He feels unmoored and isolated despite having a group of “friends” (he’s not sure how true this term really feels) from school; he is one of the only Black people in this town, running from a traumatic past in Alabama. This novel takes place over the course of one weekend, when Wallace (who is gay) hooks up with one of his male friends (who insists he is straight), and tries to navigate this intrusion into his closely protected personal sphere alongside micro- and macroaggressions at work and among the friend group. The title refers to Wallace’s persistent worry that what he is living is somehow not “real life”; he is considering leaving graduate school but doesn’t know where to turn instead.

What gazes up out of the lapping black sea of his anger? What strange dark stones make themselves known to him?

It is a book of few joys, certainly. Rather, Wallace and his friends experiences large and small traumas and frustrations, hurting themselves and each other. It is a book of beauty, though, in its precise, quietly evocative writing and close observations. As Wallace carefully watches the miniscule creatures he breeds and destroys in the university lab, he likewise tracks the moves, desires and motivations of the people around him, from whom he feels removed. His tennis partner has just discovered that his boyfriend is on “that gay app” and may be cheating on him. A female friend is on the rocks with her Tolstoy-studying boyfriend. His colleagues are generally toxic, mildly if not overtly racist, except for the one woman of color, who is horrified that Wallace would consider leaving her there alone.

Gifted is the sweetness meant to make the bitterness of failure palatable–that a person can fail again and again, but it’s all right, because they’re gifted, they’re worth something. That’s what it all tracks back to, isn’t it, Wallace thinks. That if the world has made up its mind about what you have to offer, if the world has decided it wants you, needs you, then it doesn’t matter how many times you mess up. What Wallace wants to know is where the limit is. When is it no longer forgivable to be so terrible? When does the time come when you’ve got to deliver on your gifts?

A friend-of-friends is blatantly racist, and none of the group (all white) will speak up to even the most obviously offensive comments. We get the sense that Wallace would happily quit this scene if he could identify another option in the world.

The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.

These characters are compelling and memorable, and the writing is indisputably fine. If there is a final takeaway, perhaps it is that this is real life – all of life is – and that we are all more or less miserable, whether quietly or demonstrably. It’s an admirable book but not a pleasurable one.


Rating: 7 nematodes.

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

TJ Klune is my comfort food reading these days. Under the Whispering Door has all the charm of The House in the Cerulean Sea but a new focus: end of life, death, grief and grieving, and the questions of whether one lived as fully as one might have, and what redemption might be possible. This material has a personal resonance for the author, who lost his partner at an impossibly young age. Despite that heaviness, and the heaviness that we presume, culturally, will accompany these topics, this is still a TJ Klune novel. Death is a new beginning – not one that is all flowers and sunshine, of course; it is accompanied by much pain and trauma, depending on circumstances. But there is hope, even hope for romance, and that romance happens to be between two men, in a beautiful, whimsical, hilariously misfit tea shop that is also a waystation for the recently deceased.

“You’re awfully strange.”

He heard the smile in her voice. “Thank you. That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. You’re awfully strange too, Wallace Price.”

Where Cerulean featured magical orphans and a socially awkward but well-meaning orphanage inspector, our little built family this time includes a few dead (one a sweet, goofy dog), a few living, and an initially deeply unlikeable lawyer. Three of the five central characters, Klune notes in his Acknowledgements, are people of color, while the author is white, and he emphasizes the important contributions of his sensitivity readers. I found all of these characters delightful, because if there is one thing Klune does well it is delightful, wacky, loveable, flawed characters (even dead people and dogs). Even the comedic villainess here is sort of a joy. As a YA book about death, this is just charming as can be, and I think truly helpful for those suffering a loss; but it is also never saccharine, which is an easy pit to fall into. In short, I am in for wherever Klune wants to take me next, at the juncture of sweetness, fantasy, profundity, inclusivity, wisdom and pure silliness. Strongly recommended.


Rating: 8 cups of tea, obviously.

In the Field by Rachel Pastan

A Nobel-winning scientist holds the focus of this lovely, contemplative, completely absorbing novel.

“What if Cinderella had asked her mother’s tree to give her a microscope instead of a ballgown?” With In the Field, Rachel Pastan (Alena) offers a compassionate, clear-eyed story of self-determination, love and science. The novel begins in 1982, when Dr. Kate Croft receives a phone call from the Nobel committee, then rewinds to 1923, when Kate is a first-year student at Cornell University, to the disapproval of her family, male professors and classmates.

Kate is entranced by biology, if not obsessed: “The cell was an uncharted country, and she was an explorer newly landed on shore… that was part of the joy of it: the promise of richness that lay ahead. The sense she had of undreamed-of discoveries–unimagined systems and structures–waiting there in the dark to be found.” Socially challenged and estranged from her family, she grows up with a single-minded devotion to her work, despite the struggles of being a woman in a male-dominated field and her difficulties in love.

An author’s note acknowledges that Kate Croft is based on Barbara McClintock, but Pastan makes clear that this is a heavily fictionalized account of the geneticist’s personal life, while remaining accurate to the science. Kate is a “corn man,” in the parlance of the day, studying maize genes at Cornell’s College of Agriculture. Her colleagues accept and respect her to varying degrees: one reports, “People say either you’re a genius, or else you’re off your rocker.” Kate’s greatest joy is in carefully tending her corn, her slides and her data. Other scientists profit off her discoveries (she is a gifted researcher) and deny her credit; she has difficulty accepting help. Meanwhile, she wrestles with her secret love affair with a woman, and maintains a lifelong friendship with a fellow corn man.

The curiosity that drives Kate’s research fuels her love for humanity, too. “Couldn’t people change their natures? Couldn’t they change, the way her corn had changed in the middle of the growing season, suddenly producing leaves with different frequencies of streaks? Something switched on, something else switched off, deep inside the cells.” These questions of free will are as important as those of heredity or meiosis. In the Field excels in its multifaceted view of a complex woman: scientist, lover, friend, student of life in both biology and philosophy. Readers will be better for time spent with this patient, tender, loving examination of a life devoted to examination of life. Kate will stay with readers for a long time.


This review originally ran in the July 15, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 chocolate walnut cookies.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

This strangely delightful debut novel, with its charming, anxious, bumbling hero, crackles with warmth.

Emily Austin’s spellbinding and unforgettable first novel, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, stars an unusual hero: Gilda is so profoundly socially awkward, anxious and depressed as to be practically nonfunctioning as an adult. She is perhaps too kind for her own good.

The story begins with a car wreck, when Gilda, who narrates, is struck from behind by a beige van. When she arrives at the emergency room (having driven herself, with a broken arm, because “I do not like to be a spectacle”), she is told, “You are a lot calmer than you usually are when you come in here.” Readers begin to understand that Gilda is a little odd.

From this misfortune, she follows an ad for free counseling and is dismayed to find that it is being offered at a Catholic church (Gilda is an atheist). She is too polite to disappoint the priest who thinks she’s there for a job interview, and finds herself working as the church’s new receptionist–therefore living a double life, posing as a Catholic and sort-of-dating a parishioner’s abhorrent brother-in-law (Gilda is a lesbian). While keeping up this increasingly complicated act she also finds time to worry about her brother (drinking too much) and a missing neighborhood cat, among countless other stressors; topping that list may be the fate of the church’s previous receptionist, Grace, who died under suspicious circumstances. Gilda is obsessed with death, her mind on an endless loop: hit by a bus, choke on a piece of bread, clogged arteries, cancer, apartment fire, malaria, carbon monoxide, lightning strike. Almost without meaning to, Gilda begins investigating Grace’s death, and because she doesn’t have the heart to break bad news, posing as Grace in e-mails to the woman’s old friend. What could go wrong?

Gilda’s anxiety and social ineptitude could hardly be overstated, and she bumbles through life with such painful clumsiness that her story should be hard to read. But somehow, Austin’s remarkable narrative is engaging and snappily paced even when its first-person narrator is lying in a dry, empty bathtub without the will to move. Gilda’s voice is frequently extremely funny, with gut-laugh punchlines made more effective because they are so surprising.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is disarmingly sweet even in its grimness. Gilda is a singularly memorable character. She ponders big questions–“I feel simultaneously intensely insignificant and hyperaware of how important everyone is”–and remains open to all possibilities, sometimes even the good ones.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pots of macaroni.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton

This novel of strong bonds, secrets and small-town Irish life is both sweet and horrifying, and completely absorbing.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton (Holding; A Keeper) wends its way from small town to big city, from Ireland to England and the U.S., and back again, tracking family and community. This aching saga begins in 1987, in a small village in Cork, when six young people are in a car wreck on the way home from the beach. Three are killed, one lies comatose and two walk away unscathed–physically, at least. But their lives, and those of everyone in the village of Mullinmore, are changed forever.

The novel follows these characters over the ensuing decades, most centrally Connor Hayes, the social outcast who was inexplicably driving the car when it overturned, and his younger sister, Ellen. Turned out of town by shame, blame and guilt after the tragedy, Connor lives and works in Liverpool, London and New York City, wrestling with his past and self-loathing. “The task of untangling the mess of secrets that he had created seemed so impossible.” Ellen stays in Mullinmore. A chance encounter in a Manhattan gay bar will eventually reconnect Connor to his distant past and see the next generation get another shot at correcting certain mistakes.

Norton rotates the novel’s point of view so that readers see the impact of the car wreck from many angles. The Hayes family suffers Connor’s survival alongside the grief of the families of the dead, two of whom were on the eve of their wedding. But it is that tangled mess of secrets that will most haunt these characters, and readers, as Norton doles them out teasingly into the final pages.

Home Stretch is by turns charming and harrowing as it accesses some of humanity’s darkest moments and impulses, as well as some of the best. That expert balance of comfort and pain is perhaps the most memorable feature of a novel with complex plotting, twists and turns and characters who do not fit easily into likable and unlikable categories. This is a story of the many kinds of love and betrayal that can hold and haunt people, of filial and community ties and the meaning of home. “This is what homecoming meant. Arriving in a place to discover you’re fluent in a language you’d forgotten you ever knew.” Home Stretch is a riveting narrative, a character study, a love letter to a place and a culture, and a moving coming-of-age story.


This review originally ran in the May 21, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pints.

The Murder Wall by Mari Hannah

From Shelf Awareness I got this list of “One Author’s Top 10 Queer Protagonists in Crime Fiction,” which sounded like something I needed. This is the book I chose to buy (and it had to come all the way from the UK).

As a murder mystery, I found this one engaging, not lightning-paced but with enough momentum to pull me right through its 450 pages. In Newcastle Upon Tyne, DCI Kate Daniels is on a career fast track; she’s a favorite of Detective Superintendent Bright, who is also a dear friend. (He and his idealized wife reminded me a bit of Elizabeth George’s Detective Lynley and his Deborah. And Daniels is just a bit of a Havers.) Daniels is not without her secrets, which are uncovered slowly, or her traumas, which we know more or less at the outset: eleven months before this novel’s events begin, she discovered two bodies in a church, whose unsolved murders still haunt her. Now she lands her first case as Senior Investigating Officer, which is a rush–until she sees who the victim is.

Daniels is dogged; she is good; and she has that self-destructive thread that all good fictional detectives, it seems, possess. Her buddy DS Hank Gormley is a treat, too: loyal, smart, funny. All the troops in fact are well written and more or less likeable (there’s always that one guy). This is the start of a series, and the elements I’ll want in a series are all here; I’m ready to follow these characters forward. In the world of murder mysteries, this is a darkish one, focusing on the evil that lurks in some (all?) of us, and the novel does not shy away from sexual assaults (heads up, if you need it). I’m in for more. I will say, though, that the LGBTQ angle isn’t as developed as it might be. If you come to this book chiefly for that element, you might be mildly disappointed. I didn’t necessarily feel shortchanged, because the mystery is strong. Daniels as queer protagonist counts as representation, which is the point of the article that brought me here, and that is significant. Her queerness isn’t central, which cuts both ways: it’s cool that it’s allowed to be no big deal, but it also doesn’t add much as a framing element. Her sometimes-partner is a bit underdeveloped as character, too, but I suspect she’ll come forward as the series does. Daniels is not out at work (this was the breaking point for the erstwhile partner), and her fear of repercussions is a minor plot detail that could also develop nicely; this is the 2000s, but it’s still very true that she’s already at some disadvantage in a men’s world, before inviting homophobia in as well.

I am intrigued and shall continue. I’m also keeping my eye on the possible television series adaptation – that would be fun!


Rating: 7 bags of donated clothing.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin

This superb, multifaceted book takes a close look at gay bars individually and as concept, in history and in the author’s life, tackling big questions with wisdom and grace.

Jeremy Atherton Lin brings a wise, wry voice to his masterful Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. This thoughtful study is part memoir, part research project, part travelogue and a large part classic essay-as-assay, seeking answers on the page. His subtitle indicates a wondering: Why did we go out? The answers are various; they change over time and of course are personal for Lin, but he progresses toward an understanding of what the gay bar really was, is and might be. “The question arises as to what distinguishes an enclave from a quarantine, and whether either is any longer necessary.” If gay no longer needs a bar, is this a victory, or a loss?

“A salon of effete dandies engaged in witty banter, a lair of brutes in black leather, a pathetic spot on the edge of town flying a lackluster rainbow flag for its sole denizen–one lonely hard drinker. Of course, a gay bar can be all these things and more.” Gay Bar is a personal history and a history in the traditional, researched sense: it relates Lin’s coming-of-age as well as a world of gay bars, from the scintillating to the sordid, dating back hundreds of years. Seven sections are devoted to locations–bars or neighborhoods–and represent epochs, both in Lin’s life and in the lifetime of the gay bar. Lin’s specific bars are located in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco, over the course of decades. He ranges through LGBTQ topics including protests, hate crimes, the gay rights movement, relationships with law enforcement, Stonewall and Harvey Milk, and gay-bar topics of sexual consent, music, booze, poppers and pills. Lin considers race, gender and class, and questions exploitation and appropriation. His broader subjects include community and identity, bar and nightlife culture, people’s relationships to place and more–this book has something for every reader.

Lin’s writing is consistently intriguing, descriptive and lovely: “the cranes and glassy high rises hover like chaperones.” As narrator he is by turns pensive, funny, self-deprecating, exasperated and reverent; he can be delightfully suggestive. “A pipe spilled chlorinated water. The brickwork had grown mossy down the length of its trajectory, like a viridescent trail-to-adventure on the building’s belly.” Gay Bar is enriched by the voices of others–thinkers in history, philosophy, literature and queer theory–but Lin never loses his own. This exploration is personal, deeply researched, smart and essential.


This review originally ran in the January 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mirrors.

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

This classic noir-style mystery recast with humor, female leads and superb style is both satisfying and great fun.

Willowjean Parker (who goes by Will) ran away from home at 15 to join the circus. She’s working on the side, a security job at a construction site–the kind of job women get to do now that “the men who’d usually have taken them were overseas hoping for a shot at Hitler”–when she first meets Lillian Pentecost, the famous lady detective. A few clever deductions and a little knife-throwing skill later, and she finds herself in Ms. Pentecost’s employ, apprentice to the aging lady detective. Stephen Spotswood’s first novel, Fortune Favors the Dead, sparkles with the wit and personality of this bold, unconventional heroine. Will may revere her boss, but readers know that it’s the intrepid younger woman who stars.

In Will’s delightful first-person telling, peppered with vernacular asides, the two women initially clash in a violent midnight action sequence worthy of the kind of pulp novel Will so loves. She now relates this and other stories from a distance of some years, confiding in her readers the difficulties of choosing what to include. The major case she highlights is that of the Collins family: the patriarch dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, matriarch bludgeoned with a crystal ball following a séance–in a locked room–leaving twins Randolph and Rebecca to tease and manipulate their hired detectives, Ms. Pentecost and Will. The twins’ godfather is now acting CEO of Collins Steelworks; his loyalties are unclear. And the medium and “spiritual advisor” whose crystal ball became a murder weapon is another wild card: she seems to have unusual power to intimidate Ms. Pentecost, which unnerves Will entirely.

This mystery plot has all the twists and surprises a fan of the genre could ask for, but it is Will’s distinctive, captivating voice and background–from difficult childhood to the circus to lady detective–that is Spotswood’s real triumph. Fortune Favors the Dead resets classic noir elements (smoky nightclubs, femmes fatale, unexplained midnight gunshots) in 1940s New York City as experienced by women who like women and men who like men, as Will discreetly frequents a slightly different kind of nightclub, and no one is precisely who they seem. Ms. Pentecost’s expertise and no-nonsense attitude are appealing and entertaining, but gutsy Will, with her snappy, slangy narrative style, ultimately wins readers’ hearts and carries the day.


This review originally ran in the October 2, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pockets.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Extra long review today.

I have owned this book for years and years. I have no idea why it’s taken me this long to read it. I have many times referenced a quotation on page 92: “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” (My copy of the book falls open naturally to page 92 and the line is highlighted. It’s pretty weird to have this relationship with a book I’d never read before.)

The novel’s narrator is a young man named David, an American who has been living in Paris. The book opens: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.” He takes much of the book, however, to reveal what is so terrible about the morning to come. One of Baldwin’s interesting artistic choices here is a disjointed chronology; the story is told from this night-before-the-terrible-morning, in flashbacks, which sometimes jump backward and forward in time, and then we return to the night and the terrible morning. David had been in Paris with a woman named Hella. When he proposed, she left to go travel in Spain; she needed time and space to think things through. She’s an independent woman. In her absence, David accompanies a sort of frenemy, Jacques, to a gay bar, where he strikes up a conversation with the bartender. (Jacques had intended to hit on him, but got distracted.) This is Giovanni, a young Italian man, with whom David finds interesting conversation, mutual attraction, and a very complicated set of feelings: push/pull, desire/revulsion, love/hate. They go back to Giovanni’s room, and they live together there until Hella’s return some months later, when David leaves (saying nothing to Giovanni) to return to her. She has decided she wants to be married, and David is too bound up and self-loathing to stay with the man he loves. Giovanni is distraught. I will not spoil the plot item that is the “most terrible morning of [David’s] life.”

The story is told in David’s first-person perspective, and it is full of angst and disquiet. I don’t think he’s supposed to be remotely likeable. He’s disappointed in his relationship with his father, in his relations with women (including but not especially Hella), in his feelings for men (before Giovanni, there was a boy in his boyhood as well, though he has repressed this memory), in his view of his own masculinity. He struggles with the ideas of home and belonging, both in terms of geography and identity. He is a miserable partner to Giovanni, and we are left with the impression at the book’s end that David will walk away from these events angsty as ever but materially fine, while Giovanni most certainly does not.

Giovanni’s Room has a handful of themes and angles for interpretation, but there are a few that especially interest me.

For one thing, I think the novel is very much about power structures. Jacques, the friend who takes David to the bar, is older and richer; David doesn’t actually like or respect him but wants to borrow (or “borrow”) money. Giovanni’s (also older) boss at the bar holds an analogous power over his employee: as an immigrant, Giovanni’s work prospects are few, and Guillaume is an egregious sexual harasser. David and Giovanni have a twisted codependency, and the power dynamics within their relationship are complicated. Giovanni works while David keeps house (some basic cleaning duties, but he is clearly anxious about the housewifeliness of it all). David comes from a far more secure background, economically, although he’s effectively broke on the ground in Paris because his father won’t send him any money. By contrast, Giovanni is in real danger of homelessness and starvation if anything goes wrong in his life. David withholds emotional intimacy; Giovanni is always chasing after something he can’t get from his partner. As discussed with my friend Vince, though, I think there’s an argument that each is obsessed with the other, in different ways. Then there is Hella, the strong woman who fled a marriage proposal to travel alone: she returns changed, suddenly dedicated to a life in which she explicitly wishes to be beholden to a man. She’s decided it is women’s only option, only way to truly live. (Vomit: but this is the 1950s.) I think in the end, David’s anxieties about manhood and masculinity, and his distress at his homosexuality (bisexuality?), are in some ways about power structures, too.

On a related subject: the elephant in the room here is that Baldwin’s protagonist is a blonde-haired white man. I felt surprise when I discovered this (as do many readers), which bears examination. Who do we expect to write about whom? Clearly I expected Baldwin, a Black man, to write Black characters. (To be fair, he has done so in all the other works of his I’ve read, but that’s not the root of my assumptions.) Baldwin was also a gay man, and an American who lived in Paris: he gave his protagonist these characteristics of his own, but not race. What does it mean, for one thing. And, this is too big a subject to be properly handled within this review, but it’s also part of the ongoing question about representation in fiction: what identities are represented, by what authors (of what identities), who gets to be the “default,” and on from there. Elsewhere Baldwin has written his frustration that, as a Black man, he’s expected to write about “the Negro problem,” and never allowed out from under that bell jar. Here he just turned his back on the topic entirely (or did he?), and if I felt surprise, or even if I felt a bit cheated, this is a good time to be reminded that he doesn’t owe his readers any content in particular. He is quoted in The New Yorker: “I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”

There is an argument that racial tension does appear in Giovanni’s Room. Giovanni is Italian in France, and there is no question that this is a) racial and b) a disadvantage for Giovanni. Baldwin does not go Heart of Darkness with darkness imagery, not in terms of skin tone: when we meet Giovanni, he is “insolent and dark and leonine,” but that is the only mention I found. There is however a lot of darkness imagery in the story: mainly related to spaces being dark, which can be related to their boding ill, to privacy, to queerness, to the shame David feels about this and other liaisons. Based on the above quotation from Baldwin, it sounds like he either did not intend commentary on race, or he didn’t want to acknowledge it; it’s entirely possible that any such commentary was subconscious, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I think there’s an undeniable power imbalance between the blonde David and the Italian Giovanni, which is most explicitly about class, rather than race – but since when have class and race ever been extricable? And let’s keep in mind that Italian immigrants to the United States (where both Baldwin and David grew up) were historically considered very much not white, although that would change shortly after this book was published.

Physical spaces, and a sense of home and the belonging that it entails, make up another theme that fascinates me here. (Recall that line marked in my copy.) As I keep reminding my students: pay attention to titles; they are trying to tell us something. This novel is not titled for the story of David, or of Giovanni, or for love, or death; it is titled for the room. Giovanni’s room is the place where he and David live and love together, a life and love which David feels are dirty, and sinful. It is rather obsessively described and recalled, always in negative terms. Small, claustrophobic, dirty, untidy, in a state of change (“Giovanni had had great plans for remodeling the room and there was a time, when he had actually begun to do this, when we lived with plaster all over everything and bricks piled on the floor”), cluttered, garbage-filled, dark. It is like living underwater. Other spaces where David does sinful things are also dark and dirty, as are corridors, alleys, and the spaces under bridges where men tryst, and the bars where they meet. David leaves Giovanni’s room to go to Hella’s. He never has a space of his own. The book opens and closes in the “great house” in the south of France which he must clean before he leaves it. He is embarrassed for the landlady to see the state he’s kept these rooms in. All of this accrues to anxiety about place and about spaces, and the connection between spaces and the activities they contain. None of which even begins to address the American-expat-in-Paris problem, which is a whole genre of novels unto itself (see also Stein, Hemingway, Henry James). Whew.

[I was reminded of Hemingway often. The American expat in Paris; certain aspects of character, like detachment and resistance to intimacy (others have cited Jake from The Sun Also Rises); a writing style that lends itself both to brevity as well as syntactic complexity; an insecure obsession with masculinity. I wonder if I project my own reading history. But no, Baldwin has named Hem as an influence. It shows.]

In addition to home as irrevocable condition, consider this Schrodinger’s cat between Giovanni and David.

‘…you will go home and then you will find that home is not home anymore. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home.’…

‘Beautiful logic,’ I said. ‘You mean I have a home to go to as long as I don’t go there?’

He laughed. ‘Well, isn’t it true? You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.’

‘I seem,’ I said, ‘to have heard this song before.’

I’ve heard it before, too: the version I like comes via Maya Angelou in a 1987 interview. “You can never go home again,” is the famously quoted version. The completion of her fuller line is instructive. “You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.” Okay, I’m revealing my own obsessions now, but I think it’s safe to say that Baldwin shares them (and David, too).

This review has gotten awfully long, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to interpret and interrogate about this novel, brief at under 200 pages and yet deep and rich. What can I say about Baldwin? Go read him yourself.


Rating: 8 glasses.
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