July 25, 2009

E. Lynn Harris

Author E. Lynn Harris died this week at the age of 54. In his memory, I'd like to post a review of his book Abide with Me that I wrote in May of 1999.

Focusing on the trials and triumphs of both gay and straight relationships among upscale African-Americans has made E. Lynn Harris a runaway success, starting with his self-published debut, Invisible Life, in 1992. That book was sold in beauty salons and black-owned bookstores before it was picked up in trade paperback by Anchor Books. Rabid word of mouth floated Invisible Life on the Blackboard Bestseller List of African American titles for 11 months, and each novel Harris released has performed even better. His book, And This Too Shall Pass, spent 9 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. That's a whole lot of love. And any negative criticism of Harris's books just seems, well . . . mean.

Abide with Me, the latest installment in Harris's soap opera of continuing characters learning the rules of devotion in Chicago, doesn't present many reasons for such meanness. Raymond Tyler and Trent Walters (old friends to fans familiar with the previous book If This World Were Mine) have been together for more than five happy years, until Raymond gets nominated for a federal judgeship.

The painfully in-depth screening process reveals that Trent hasn't been the faithful partner Raymond thought. As Trent, unaware of Raymond's knowledge, heads off to South Africa for an architecture project, the uptight Raymond falls into a tizzy of lacerating self-analysis. How could he have been so stupid to trust Trent? Should Raymond publicly denounce their relationship as directly as he once celebrated it in order to save his dream of becoming a judge, even though "being in a stable relationship with Trent has helped Raymond a great deal and it's given him a sense of peace and security"?

Meanwhile, Raymond gets involved again with Basil Henderson, who fans of the series will recognize as the conflicted bisexual ex-football player with a body that won't quit and incredible gray eyes whose "each stare felt like a sexual encounter." Basil is a major player in Abide with Me, as he's going through analysis of his own with a psychiatrist, dealing with rather pedestrian abuse issues and self-lacerating homophobia.

Raymond's growing interest in renewing his earlier affair with Basil forms the slight tension that helps propel the book. Is "an eye for an eye" a functional philosophy when dealing with equality in the messy world of relationships? Raymond's uncertain path toward forgiving Trent forms the ambiguous moral core of Abide with Me.

Intertwined with this is the story of Nicole Springer--a woman who used to date Raymond in his pre-gay days and who now is blissfully married to Raymond's best friend, Jared. Nicole joins the national tour of Dreamgirls as the lead. The backstage world of a touring musical is evoked colorfully, if casually, and with some verisimilitude, if the thanks to various Broadway luminaries in the opening acknowledgments is any indication. But when the two-faced Yancy Braxton is introduced as Nicole's understudy, the story, while still engaging, borrows far too heavily from the movie All About Eve. That tour has been traveled before.

This dense plotting is only the tip of the iceberg, and it would be annoyingly complex if it wasn't for Harris's main talents -- he's really easy to read, and he truly cares for these characters with such warmth, it virtually emanates off the page. Raymond and Nicole get the full force of Harris's all-encompassing affection. They are recognizably human, even in their melodramatic lives.

Unfortunately, Harris's glancing, skimming writing style allows only the main characters to be so fully fleshed out. Trent suffers worst of all -- his reasons for cheating are never believably presented -- but Basil gets shafted, too. True, Basil's not exactly the contemplative type, but it seemed as though Harris was as blinded by Basil's oversized sexuality and attractiveness as the "honeys" who Basil uses and scorns for wanting him only for his exterior.

That E. Lynn Harris has so successfully crossed over into the pop culture mainstream is a reason to celebrate. His writing can be awkward, his analyses may seem like surface exposition, but his emotional warmth, spiritual surety, and love for humanity makes reading Abide with Me and his other novels feel like a balm of understanding.

No comments: