By Paul Mendez
When I came out as gay at 15, my West Indian pastor visited my family home to salvage my soul. I was not wrong, he said, but the distance my sexuality could create between me and God was. And so came the questions: Have you had sex with men? Do you plan to in the near or distant future? The act, the manifestation of a buried desire, Sodom and Gomorrah left unchecked: This was to be avoided.
I was reminded of that day while reading “Rainbow Milk,” the debut novel by Paul Mendez. In it a 19-year-old Jehovah’s Witness named Jesse experiences a church intervention almost identical to mine when news that he’s flirted with another boy reaches the pulpit. Because of his transgression, he is “disfellowshipped.” He leaves his home in England’s West Midlands for London, becomes a rent boy and begins the work of finding himself anew.
There is a long history that leads us to Jesse, and “Rainbow Milk” is a study in the consequences of a family’s actions across generations. The novel starts in 1959 with a Jamaican family that has emigrated to a British coal town as part of the Windrush generation of Afro-Caribbeans who came to the United Kingdom at the encouragement of the British government. Narrating this part of the story in a loose Jamaican patois is Norman, a former boxer who is losing his sight. His hope is prosperity, for his wife and two children. His reward is racism, struggle and soot. “We eye never fall on so much black in all we life,” he says. “The building black. The sky black. The people black, and not because they come from where we come from.” As with writers like Marlon James and Nicole Dennis-Benn, Mendez’s dialect-writing stretches the boundaries of a language owned by no one.
Then it is 2002 and an exiled Jesse is on his way to meet up with a john. What follows is a winding coming-of-self story that moves with the uncertainty of a boy trying to become the kind of man he’s never witnessed: one living on his own terms. In London Jesse’s freshly opened eyes devour everything around him: the heft of a crotch on the Tube, the smile of a bearded man across the bar, the butts, the legs, the hair in all places. Mendez writes Jesse’s desires in an honest, unprecious and often raunchy staccato.
The writing is delicious and subtle throughout, often punctuated by musical references that ground it in the decades it explores. Listening to Joy Division, Jesse closes his eyes: “I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, take the shock away. There was no chorus, just a guitar line, then a new verse. The weed went to his head and it was black as blindness.” On the lookout for “a white daddy” Jesse spots a middle-aged man in a suit jacket who “looked like a wad of cash, tasted of roast beef, felt like velvet, smelled of success.” But to this man, Jesse thinks — quoting “Freak Like Me,” by Sugababes — “he was just a roughneck brotha that can satisfy me.” Scores by Nina Simone and Wham! give way to Mary J. Blige and Beyoncé: a soundtrack to Jesse’s wayward young adulthood.
Mendez balances the story atop the shifting tectonic plates of dislocation, and in the gaps Jesse discovers new friends and lovers who show him, through unexpected kindness, what it’s like to be seen. That a Black gay man can embrace the totality of his lust, and others’ lust for him. It’s unclear how Mendez will land this bold, horny and at times unmoored debut until a line toward the end winks at just how this unwieldy tale works: “You’ve lost your center of gravity,” a friend tells Jesse. “So to survive, you’ll need to take steps to create another.”