| Homo-thugs and credit card woes
Practically the anointed king of black trade fiction, Harris is best known for his bold introduction of the "homo-thug," the overtly masculine yet secretly gay black male protagonist, who is incarnated in NADGB as John Basil Henderson. "Basil" is an ex-football player turned über sports agent who fights off the advances of both adoring men and women. The object of Basil's heterosexual distraction is the lovely Yancey Harrington Braxton (Harris' books could also serve as 100 Names for Your Black Middle Class Newborn), a supercilious and beautiful Broadway actress.
NADGB begins at the end of the story and the twentieth century. Basil calls Yancey the night before their wedding and breaks it off. When she begs for a reason, he answers with a heavy-handed "You know why." I suppose this is supposed to dramatically end the tragically false heterosexual bliss, but all it does is lift the curtain on the inane Basil and Yancey Show.
We are then thrust into the world of the black, bourgeois, and beautiful in Yancey and Basil's pre-wedding days. They met at a party, fell in love, care about each other for no apparent reason, have nights of an entirely too graphic passion, decide to get married (why?), and then break up over a series of problematic episodes including (but not limited to): Yancey spying on Basil, Basil spying on Yancey, Basil coming on to several male friends, and the (surprise!) return of Yancey's baby's father to claim his woman. It's hard to believe that one man came up with such an unbelievably awful plot.
To be fair, the novel is entertaining. Yancey's narrative can really draw you in–-if you ignore the interruptions of shallow declarations by Basil, such as, "I had gone to a doctor to face my past--a past that included my sexual molestation by a much beloved uncle." Yancey is a star without a stage; she turns down bit parts from a flustered agent and demands a role as the "girlfriend" on "Sex and the City." As seemingly perfect as she is, though, Yancey still lies, cheats, and steals to pay her Diner's Club card. This desperadette suffers from a disease Harris seems most apt to write about--obsessive consumption that drives black middle-class life in America. Yancey eats, lives, and dresses above her means and struggles through the novel trying to make others jealous. The saddest truth of NADGB is not the absurdity of the plot but that Harris can sketch out so perfectly the vacuous existence of today's black middle class.
Harris loves telling us the threadcount in Basil and Yancey's bedsheets, but seems afraid to take on the momentous events that really change his characters' lives: the birth of Yancey's baby in college or Basil's prior struggles with his homosexuality, for example. This makes it hard to feel anything for his characters when there's a crisis. In many ways, Harris works harder to convince his readers of Yancey and Basil's class status than creating a story that readers can care about.
The drama in the novel is supposed to come from the slow disintegration of Basil and Yancey's perfect engagement, mostly because Basil can't admit his homosexual desires and because Yancey can't seem to be happy in any situation. Basil's vacillation between disgust for homosexuals and internal anguish because of his own feelings might give him depth, but Harris seems not very interested in examining this struggle. Instead, he opts for gratuitous gay sex. Harris does try to show the emotional side of homosexual relationships through Zurich, a man Basil comes on to, but clearly Harris is not very interested in these scenes. Harris, himself a gay man, does little to break down preconceived notions about homosexuality--even those deeply entrenched in the black community. Disappointingly, he chooses to revel in Basil's oversexualized narrative.
The novel reaches a new low when Yancey's overbearing and downright frightening mother enters. Ava Middlebrooks is a frightening portrayal of what Yancey could easily be in 15 years--materialistic, cold, and cunning. Yancey and her mother don't get along due to some ambiguous family drama that Harris doesn't get into. At the end of the novel, the real question is not why Basil is leaving Yancey but why they ever entered a relationship at all.
NADGB is supposed to be a tragic love story about a great guy who really does love his girlfriend, save for a pesky desire to be with men. Unfortunately what results is a troublesome, literary disaster overwrought with stereotypes, shallow characters, and feigned crisis and emotions.
Suddenly the 400-page Cheaters looked more daunting.
Homo-thugs and credit card woes