(Dialogue Books, 2020)
In the “Acknowledgements” that follow Rainbow Milk, author Paul Mendez provides a thumbnail sketch of his personal journey: “Leaving the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses behind at seventeen meant I lost a comfortable, extended Christian family; outside, I had no idea where to look for my true self, where that person was supposed to fit in this world, and who with.” Given this admission, one can assume the fictional story of Jesse McCarthy—a Black, gay, former Jehovah’s Witness whose disfellowship from the church abruptly separates him from the only family he has ever known—is at least partially drawn from Mendez’s personal experience. This does not detract from the novel’s imaginative texture. Distinguished by its gritty realism, Rainbow Milk is among the more convincing debuts I have read in years.
It is also one of the more humane. Mendez allows Jesse to articulate his thoughts and feelings without exploiting his struggles for cheap consumption. Once disfellowshipped, the boy flees Birmingham’s industrial “Black Country” to seek sexual liberation in London. Sadly, his unconstrained pursuit of daddy becomes a recursive trap. The source for this quest is apparently Graham, Jesse’s white, working-class stepfather. Flashbacks indicate that early on, before Jesse’s depressed and unstable mother interfered, Graham and Jesse might have forged a rewarding father-son relationship. At his wife’s bidding, Graham revokes the very affection Jesse later transfers to a sexual plane. Graham is not the only character who betrays the boy. Jesse’s early life is marked by men whose tantalizing attentions suggest the possibility of love but inevitably terminate in shame and disappointment.
Curious, vulnerable, and above all enduring, Jesse develops a cynical carapace to manage those betrayals. After a string of sordid encounters, he realizes the practical benefits of having a high libido and enormous appendage. As a hustler, he can earn far more money than doing drab, menial jobs. Several Goodreads and Amazon customer reviews have complained about excessive, “pointless” sex scenes. Such criticism is misplaced. Like another outstanding gay-themed debut, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, Mendez’s “graphic” depictions of anal and oral intercourse throughout Rainbow Milk are essential to an understanding of Jesse’s psychological and emotional trajectory. His sexual hunger speaks to broader concerns, not least of all financial desperation. It would be morally appalling to gloss over such moments in his experience in order to maintain literary decorum.
Still, sex is only half the story. Jesse may be gay, but for Mendez he is first and foremost Black. Descended from Jamaican immigrants, Jesse’s experiences are circumscribed by racism, most notably when white people compartmentalize his Blackness and project onto him their demeaning, fear-based stereotypes. Throughout Rainbow Milk, Jesse smarts from the systemic privileging of white perspectives at both socio-economic and interpersonal levels. In one scene, a Great Bridge co-worker at McDonald’s calls Jesse “a black boy trying to be a white boy trying to be a black boy.” In another, as one of his white Jehovah’s Brother disfellowships him for being “defiled and faithless,” Jesse recalls that same Brother performing a terrifying Black-face minstrel routine at his mother’s second wedding, when the boy was only four.
Such experiences are not unique to the novel’s main protagonist. Rainbow Milk begins with the compelling prelude of Norman Alonso, a handsome, athletic Jamaican whose fine looks and extensive horticultural knowledge secure him promising employment as a council gardener. Despite his expertise, Norman’s co-workers will not accept advice or instruction from him, and after an especially upsetting act of vandalism upon his home, he decides to quit. Forced to take on menial work, his gradual loss of vision reduces his circumstances even further. Although it is not immediately apparent how Norman and Jesse’s stories relate, their thematic similarities are more than enough to sustain their co-existence until the connection is finally made. What is more, the two narratives display Mendez’s extensive grasp of “linguistic authenticity” (incidentally a phrase Jesse coins in reference to a novel he reads), where various dialects clash and fuse in vivid, startling, dignified music.
Dignity and authenticity are in fact central concerns of Rainbow Milk. If young Jesse (19) was anxious to be loved, older Jesse (33) is prone to introspection and self-assessment. No longer hustling, he lives with a white poet named Owen and works as a seasoned waiter at a high-class restaurant. He is also angry. Angry for being so ill-treated by his mother and immediate family. Angry that his yearning to be loved almost killed him. Angry that the fact of his Blackness follows him everywhere in a white world. Blogs and articles written by Black American activists enable him to appropriately frame the microaggressions and overt acts of racism he has experienced his entire life. Having overcome difficult odds, he now lectures well-meaning white friends on their racist assumptions and aligns himself with Black friends who share his reality.
While he loves Owen and is more at peace with his chosen family than ever before, Rainbow Milk is not a Cinderella story. Nonetheless, the novel does affirm charity and human kindness. In a comparatively brief passage mid-way through the book, Jesse cites an older man named Derrick who rescues him from prostitution by “patiently giving him the space to feel like a normal human being.” The unsexy truth is Jesse needs a secure environment in order to heal and self-assess before he can love. Once his circumstances have stabilized, he can reflect more broadly on racial inequities. Years later, riding on a train, he spies a “heavy, tired-looking black woman” in the compartment and wonders “what she is closing her eyes from, what she’s been allowed to see by people who do not think of her as having an opinion.”
As important as ideas are to Rainbow Milk, the novel is equally distinctive for its architectonics and style. Mendez builds effective long scenes tense with sexual possibility and doubt. Said scenes promise (or sometimes threaten) explosive release but terminate before climax, ensuring his emotional and sexual frustration will continue through vast portions of the book. One particular scene, between Owen and Jesse, runs nearly 60 pages, their seemingly inevitable erotic encounter propelled then stalled by discussions of popular music (Mary J. Blige fans take note!), religion, and personal strife. During these discussions, Jesse brims with anticipation while fretting about his possible HIV status. The result is viscerally thrilling, much like an orchestral score where expectations rise and fall with the corresponding swell and contraction of sound.
Another notable feature of Rainbow Milk involves Mendez’s impressive handling of women. Many strong, affirmative sister figures appear in the latter half of the book, but the most fascinating study may be Jesse’s antagonistic mother, Val. While the unyielding hostility she shows her son hampers his connection to others, one cannot quite loathe her. Mendez provides enough context to humanize her brutal disavowal as the result of abandonment and fear. Her pitiful story would make a rewarding companion novel. In the meantime, the novel we have is more than enough. Many UK critics have already noted that Rainbow Milk heralds the arrival of a major fictional talent. Indeed, through Jesse, Paul Mendez has created a character of genuine depth and dimension, someone whose searching haunts the reader’s mind long after one returns the book to a shelf.