Paul Mendez's 'Rainbow Milk' - an auspicious literary debut

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday May 3, 2022
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Author Paul Mendez
Author Paul Mendez

Raw and transcendent are the words applicable to Paul Mendez's semi-autobiographical debut novel "Rainbow Milk." A multi-generational dissection of sexuality, race, and religion on the rocky evolution of a young gay Black man, it is set in England from the late 1950s to the 2016 Brexit election.

The book was published last year and will be released as a paperback later this month. It has been nominated for a Lambda literary award ("Lammy") as Best Gay Fiction and will likely win. It has received mostly raves from the UK press, transforming Mendez into one of their hottest authors.

Clearly Mendez is a bold remarkable talent, perhaps nearly matching that of his partner, the acclaimed almost-thirty-years-older British novelist Alan Hollinghurst ("The Swimming Pool Library," "The Line of Beauty"), making them potentially the Mary Shelley/Percy Shelley of English gay literature. Both writers concentrate on the challenge of finding one's self while wrestling with a homophobic and racist society.

The novel begins in 1956 with Norman Alonso, a gardener and Jamaican emigrant, who resides in Blixton, a coal town, part of the Black country, named after industrial pollution, but also for the first wave of the Windrush immigrant generation who journeyed from the Afro-Caribbean West Indies to Britain from 1948 to 1971. They came to fill labor shortages after World War II, hoping for a more prosperous future.

Norman started as a boxer but bad health, and limited options forced him to revert back to his horticultural skills, much prized by his clients. However, he's going blind and can no longer work, so his wife supports the family through two jobs. He muses, "We leave the Garden of Eden for the Land of Milk and Honey and find Sodom and Gomorrah."

Then the plot skips ahead to 2002, introducing us to Jesse McCarthy, a 20-year-old Black man, whom we will later discover is Norman's grandson. Gloria, Norman's daughter and Jesse's mother, had left his abusive father and married an older white man, Graham, converting to his Jehovah's Witness religion. His mother resents Jesse because he reminds her of past failures.

Starting as a young boy, with no Black male role models, he attempts to erase himself by using a Brillo pad on his skin with "the hot tap on until it ran scalding and set to scratching off the black, rubbed until the foam went pink."

Later a friend will observe about him, "you're like a black boy trying to be a white boy trying to be a black boy," meaning learning what it means to be Black from white men.

Jesse develops into "the darling of the congregation," with talk of him entering the ministry. He makes a flimsy pass at his friend Fraser, thinking he's gay, suggesting they run away and share a flat together: "I'd be like your girlfriend. I'd look after ya." Now outed, the church "disfellowships" him.

Jesse flees from his family to London, where in order to survive, he becomes an in-demand rent boy, esteemed for his capable sexual skills (i.e. no gag reflex), especially servicing older white daddies. He starts to live on his own terms, which includes unprotected sex and degrading encounters, as he searches for a white savior, even rejecting other black men as clients.

All his early sexual encounters are rooted in shame and humiliation. The intense sex described here is raunchy, explicit —almost like reading pornography— and after a while these scenes become repetitive (perhaps intentionally). He is abused and assaulted, with tricks projecting their demeaning racial stereotypes onto him.

It becomes clear how Jesse is both hated for being Black and desired for that same reason. Being a sex worker, he's trying to learn to love that which he'd been taught to hate and suppress.

It will be one horrifying encounter with a man using a razor blade to infect Jesse with HIV, that will shock him into ending this self-destructive behavior, by finding a different line of work.

He secures a job as a waiter in a posh restaurant, but on the first day, is demoted to kitchen porter due to the manager's racism. He works in other eateries and cafes, but no matter how high class, racist snobbery raises its ugly head. Settling down with a former housemate, Owen (Cambridge-educated and a published poet), Jesse, despite feeling inferior, develops his own ambitions to become a writer.

Gritty realism

"Rainbow Milk" —the title comes from the sweet/repulsive Fruit Loops cereal his mother fed him for breakfast— at its very best reveals how racism has been ingrained into Jesse's very identity and records his long bumpy often heartbreaking journey to healing and self-acceptance, by creating another "center of gravity."

Mendez uses gritty realism to portray Jesse's damaging self-abandon and emotional deterioration, but with luminous almost religious language as he learns to stop running away from himself and gain a modicum of self-respect.

Mendez employs popular song lyrics from often Black divas (Mary J. Blige) to propel the plot, injecting certain scenes with a pulsating energy. It often works, but other times it can seem like long digressions that can drag and stall the pace of the book.

As beautiful and lyrical as the prose can be, some of it is overwritten, notably excessive when recounting minor mundane details. Also, the heavy Jamaican dialect in chapter 1 and interspersed occasionally later, can be a frustrating comprehension exercise for American readers, but perseverance will reap abundant rewards.

Overall, "Rainbow Milk" is a viscerally thrilling damning intersectional indictment of racism and religious homophobia. It also functions as an inspiring testament to Jesse's resilience and survival over both physical and emotional traumas, as he gradually releases his anger and allows himself to be loved unapologetically for who he is.

Readers will come to care deeply about Jesse, invested in all his exploits. By no means flawless, "Rainbow Milk" heralds a sensational memorable new voice in gay fiction that will simultaneously intoxicate and sear audiences, but leave no doubt they are in the hands of a budding literary star.

'Rainbow Milk: a novel' by Paul Mendez. Anchor/Penguin-Random House, $17.00

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