In Paul Mendez’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, Rainbow Milk, his avatar is Jesse McCarthy – young, gay, black and a former Jehovah’s Witness – who has learned what it means to be a black man from white men. Jesse’s arrival in London, and presumably Mendez’s, at the turn of the millennium allows him to start putting these parts of himself in some kind of order.
With a Dick Whittington-esque innocence Jesse flees his small Black Country town and the cruelty of his family. So far so familiar, The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis and The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride cover similar ground, but Mendez distinguishes his own work through his careful attention to the line between self-acceptance and self-abandon.
Rainbow Milk is the first novel I’ve read where the white, male, middle-aged body is eroticised and fetishised to this degree; its strength, its smells, its symbolism and its possession are written about in a way that maps power relationships going back centuries, and undercuts the more typical focus on the black male body.
This charged relationship between black and white men is at first lightly seen in the relationship between a Jamaican gardener, Norman Alonso, and his employer, Henry Chambers, who is introduced as “a tall blond man like a prince”. The centrality of these pale princes to the fortunes of black men echoes throughout the novel, and by the time Jesse finds work as a rent boy in London his faith in, and almost desperate need for, a white saviour is brutally clear.
To rewind a little to the humble childhood home of Jesse McCarthy, we find a teenage boy stigmatised both within his family and beyond. Earnest and religious, he still cannot win the love of his mother, who raised him alone before she married her English husband, Graham, and joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Jesse seeks to find someone he can identify with, and the important symbolic power that spaces and rooms have in Giovanni’s Room is reflected throughout Rainbow Milk. Jesse’s room in the family home is a squalid space with old furniture and no heating, somewhere that displays his mother’s low estimation of him. Like Giovanni, Jesse’s emotional deterioration is shown through the lack of care he takes (or is given) domestically. In London, Mendez describes every home, pub, toilet, and restaurant in forensic detail, with an awareness of class signifiers and small details that is both entertaining and moving. Occasionally, the equation made between wealth and apparent goodness is too blunt, but for Jesse comfortable, pristine homes signify safety and love, and his history accounts for his quick judgement.
Rainbow Milk captures the spirit of London just after the millennium with its references to Sugababes (as one character firmly says, not the Sugababes), skinny jeans, and the portentous atmosphere after 9/11, especially for a teenager raised with the expectation that the world might easily end in his lifetime and, in fact, ideally would end.
Rich in sexual opportunities, Jesse throws himself into them with a fin de siècle energy. They are the only things he finds himself rich in, and it is in these men that we find an interesting mirror reflecting both how Jesse perceives himself, and how he is perceived by others. There is a moving scene where, waiting on one punter’s doorstep, Jesse pulls his trousers down low, because that is what the man expects and desires a young black man to look like.
Jesse is constantly being measured up to a standard of blackness that he barely understands, having grown up without any black male role models. There are moments when his sexualised self-hatred explodes on the page: “You can call me a nigger all you want. I trust you. I want you to. I want you to get it the fuck out of your system.”
Rainbow Milk is a bold and raw novel, and although some edges still need sanding down it is memorable and affecting. There is one stretch in the middle where the prose is fine, fluid and luminous; in it Jesse enjoys his first Christmas lunch, with a flatmate he barely knows, and he finally seems to stop running away from himself. Here both Jesse and Mendez’s sinews seem to relax and you can see how, once the sexualised power-play has diminished, there can be a real quiet intimacy between men, and some of the pain Jesse has experienced can be truly communicated and, perhaps, even healed.
Nadifa Mohamed’s books include “The Orchard of Lost Souls” (Simon & Schuster)
Dialogue Books, 368pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis