The Guilty Pleasures of Reading E. Lynn Harris
Doubleday & Company, Incorporated
Date Published: March 16, 1999
Format: Trade Cloth
Reviewed by Paige Turner
Warning: The following comments reveal a conflicted and divided point of view, a la the characters who populate the novels of E. Lynn Harris. Readers are advised to take this review with a grain of salt, (or a glass of champagne).
E. Lynn Harris is really scraping the bottom of the literary barrel when he has to mine old Bette Davis movies for inspiration! Abide With Me, Harris latest novel, borrows liberally from the movie "All About Eve" in relating back stabbing rivalries among theatre actresses. He even clues us in by naming the female villain after Eve Harrington. (What's next? Perhaps Harris will portray the characters of Raymond and Basil in a remake of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?") This borrowing across cultures, genres and five decades is a red flag that Harris' creative juices are running on empty.
Abide With Me features the continuing saga of Raymond Tyler, (introduced in the books, Invisible Life and Just As I Am), an upright, upwardly mobile African American lawyer who has only recently come to feel comfortable with his homosexuality. Raymond is presented with a wonderful professional opportunity that raises a host of conflicts. A parallel story involves Raymond's friend, the earnest and beleaguered Nicole Springer, in her quest to revive her career as an actress.
Harris is an author whose luck in coming up with a winning formula continues to outstrip his writing skills. In Abide With Me Harris sticks to his usual "paint-by-the-numbers" approach that includes: characters that gay readers can identify with; plot twists that straight readers can identify with; affluent African Americans who don designer name clothes and frolic in and champagne-soaked, sumptuous settings; steamy gay and hetero sex; college and pro sports; name dropping from the world of entertainment; and generous dollops of religion. Usually one or two "for real/down home" folks (most likely somebody's Mama or Grandmama), are thrown in as a touchstone for the other glamorous and conflicted characters to check in with their (select all that apply): fabulousness/realness/spirituality/blackness/sexual identity.
In seeking to satisfy his readers, Harris sometimes "hits on it". But in Abide With Me he mostly misses the mark, forcing readers to cherry pick the worthwhile features from the fluff. Some of the worthwhile elements include:
’ Conversations between Abide With Me's "villain", Basil Henderson and his psychiatrist are well crafted and ring true. Interestingly Basil, with his pain and his denial, is the character that is the most compelling, vivid, and genuine, and provides a welcome contrast to the saintly Raymond.
’ An incidental character, a woman in a coffee shop, provides one of the most hilarious, on-the-money distillations of every pretentious, "bougie", African American encountered in the past three decades.
’ A dinner party in Seattle with a boorish gay guest was an absolute howl.
’ Harris provides the characters with trendy, intriguing names: Kirby, Delaney, Yancey, et al.-- a staple feature of his books.
Despite the few choice portions of his book, it can not be overlooked that Harris is out- and-out ham handed in forcing plot elements to fit. One example is the aging of Nicole. In the previous books she was tender and luscious, but in Abide With Me she is aging and past her prime, (yet her male peer characters do not suffer the same fate. Go figure). This is a clunky plot device to advance the Yancey/All About Eve plot line. Also, Yancey and her mother are cartoonishly designed and mean spirited. Do we really even care about them or want to read about them?
Another example of Harris' heavy touch is seen in the way that the final pages of Abide With Me were tacked on to provide a hokey ending, and not as a natural resolution or out growth of the plot's progression. In addition it should also be mentioned that Harris' use of religious and hymn phrases for his book titles (a coy ploy to elevate his work in an aura of religious respectability), is irritating and wearing real thin.
Abide With Me is fun to read on a soap opera level, and functions as a kind of mental popcorn. But has Harris grown as a writer over the last five years and with five commercially successful books? His primary motivation as a writer seems to provide a sanitized, yet titillating look at gay lives and gay sex. Readers are urged to demand better quality writing, and to demand growth from the authors they support.
A contemporary portrayal of the anguish and conflict of being black and gay in America has yet to be written. It will make a welcome contribution, but Abide With Me (and the others in this series) ain't it.