Black like him: Rasheed Newson's 'My Government Means to Kill Me'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday August 23, 2022
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author Rasheed Newson
author Rasheed Newson

Rasheed Newson's debut novel, "My Government Means to Kill Me" (Flatiron Books) is not the only noteworthy gay novel with footnotes, but still, they do make themselves known. In Jordy Rosenberg's "Confessions of the Fox," the footnotes are an actual, if supremely ironic, part of the story; comically, they eventually overwhelm text.

Encountering them in Newson's novel, one wondered —at first. But before long, and for sure by the concluding Acknowledgments, it's clear that Newson is merely being an unusually responsible novelist, providing background on actual history and real historical people that young readers might not know about, or at least not reflexively.

They're another tell about Newson and his novel: importantly, this book cannot be dismissed as autofiction. The story is about the late-teenage Earl "Trey" Singleton III and his adventures in the Black gay world (and its white satellites) in the New York of the 1980s. Newson would not have been there, but thanks to his riveting book, a reader of any age is.

Tempting as it is to call "My Government Means To Kill Me" a Netflix novel, in the mold of John Adams' "Nixon in China" being a "CNN opera," a designation that lasted for a decade or more and still names a burgeoning operatic genre, it isn't. A highly regarded TV writer, producer, and showrunner —the forthcoming, eagerly awaited "Ben-Air" series is his— Newson notes in his bio that "he has an ID badge from every [LA] studio lot."

But in the same way television is now neck-and-neck with movies, artistically, if not gaining on them, Newson's work transcends professionalism and polish to create fiction that matters and is likely to endure. Such as it can be deemed genre fiction at all, it's a revival of the AIDS novel once nearly ubiquitous in gay fiction. Readers who were "there" in the timeframe of the novel will feel like they're there again without being emotionally exploited.

author Rasheed Newson  (Source: photo: Christopher Marrs)

The funny bone
It may need saying that "My Government Means to Kill Me" is, in keeping with its title, a fundamentally serious book. That Trey becomes a passionate if initially reluctant member of ACT UP speaks plainly to that.

But there's a subcutaneous humor that runs the length of the book that not infrequently breaks the surface in ways that bring smiles of recognition. It's grounded in Trey's enormous likeableness —even when he's trying to portray himself as bad.

The novel is told in his first person, and his gay sass is an essential element. That he's also a keenly observant, uniquely articulate MoFo is frosting on the cake.

Given the time lag inherent in publishing fiction, Newson would still have been writing at least portions of his novel during the Trump administration. So when several early chapters of this fundamentally picaresque tale are devoted to a rent strike Trey and his roommate Gregory wage against real-estate mogul Fred Trump, hilarity reigns from the first invocation of the Trump name.

A salty footnote tells most of what needs remembering about Trump lawyer Roy Cohn. And to dot the i's and cross the t's, Newson directs any uninformed reader to the scathing depiction of Cohn in Tony Kushner's play, "Angels in America."

Not to belabor this footnote thing, it's hard not to discern hidden humor in Newson's giving us a backgrounder on Prince while not explaining the Dewey decimal system; Sylvester maybe, and the hanky code and the Mineshaft — but Ronald Reagan? That said, there's an important retelling of a great deal of 20th-century gay history in those notes, all of it authoritative, much of it tantalizing, and, in the case of some closeted public figures, eyebrow-raising.

Black like Trey
"My Government Means yo Kill Me" also comes like a corrective to a prevailing trend of AIDS fiction, which focused on adorable and successful if tragic white guys, for whom public sympathy was more reflexive than it was for their brothers of color. At the same time, there's not a trace of self-pity in Trey's self-depiction.

There are regular reminders that he is the scion of an affluent family of political activists who live in an Indianapolis "mansion." Such as there's an Everyman in Trey, it emerges in his accounts of the trials of growing up effeminate and his undying if ultimately futile desire that his father show him some love.

That here there remains a surviving, if endangered, gay bathhouse in Harlem —Mount Morris, not that there is any signage— gives Newson the opportunity to return the reader to basic, raw bathhouse culture. Trey is such a devoted customer he gets his own room and free admission. It's at Mount Morris that the accident of race seems to matter least, a fact readers may find recognizable.

Trey is also open about the advantages of being young, gifted, and Black —and, over time, buff— in snaring avid if sometimes closeted sexual partners. He draws a convincing line between his insatiable desire for sex and the degree to which it is non-commercial. Newson uses Gregory to portray the precipitously aging young Black man's pursuit of senior sugar-daddies in a furious attempt to outlive them.

It keeps you hanging on
"My Government Means to Kill Me" is fast paced without lapsing into the superficial. The sex writing is tangy and satisfying without becoming lurid. Erik is particularly memorable.

A pattern you notice only gradually is that the chapters, called "Lessons," don't end in cliffhangers in the manner of TV series. They're more like the morals tucked into the happy endings of 18th-century operas, equal parts jolting and necessary. Most of them take a breath to reflect on the meaning of it all, only occasionally cloyingly.

Countervailing the conventions of the AIDS novel, HIV does not stalk the tale. The fun phase of the sexually liberated Manhattan is ribald and, yes, fun.

Trey's transition from addictive sex to activism is narratively well-paced and compelling. Perhaps necessarily, the writing gets expository when ACT UP first becomes the focus of Trey's life. But we hear Larry Kramer, no less, saying that Trey's primary value to ACT UP is his being "naturally likable." Trey attains "celebrity status" in the movement.

Newson does not go light on the moral conundrums that come with activism at this level, and the plot thickens realistically, right up to a stunner of an ending. Few first novelists —novelists of any vintage— know how to end a book. Newson nails it.

The book took me back without my once regretting it. It's not too soon for a new narrative of the crisis, and Newson's hits all the right notes. Much as I disdain sentimentality, I'm a sucker for it, and I'm glad Newson didn't oblige me.

The novel appears just a little too late to qualify as a beach book (God willing and the seas don't rise), but word of it should spread like wildfire —after a manner of speaking.

'My Government Means to Kill Me' by Rasheed Newson, Flatiron Press, 320 pp., $14.99.

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