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He should be a hero for many of us. When E. Lynn Harris burst onto the literary scene in the early Nineties, he entered virginal territory for mainstream black literature and courageously dealt with the difficult and taboo subjects of bisexuality, homosexuality and die dynamics of black American middle class culture. His valiant act had black women second-guessing their men, and had closeted and confused black men cowering and running for cover. Harris’ revelations of a secret culture clued millions of readers in to what gay men have always known: Men who “play” with other men don’t always speak in stereotypically lisped high voices or have limp wrists; they are also baritone- and bass-voiced “manly men” who possess strong wrists mat hurtle footballs, write sports articles, draft legal documents and sign multimillion-dollar business deals.
Harris is not just a hero; he’s an iconoclast.
The courage and tenacity to perform such heroics is not easily summoned. Readers learn the source of Harris’ candor, albeit guarded, in his long-awaited memoir What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. His sad and moving account discloses his search for love perfected and evidenced in his own life, along with weighty attendant issues of selfesteem, depression, alcoholism and suicide.
My initial reservations about the book (yes, I admit it, there were a few) were laid to rest after reading his introduction, one important line in particular: “I am a black gay man.” This was, after all, the man who had entertained and instructed the world about certain aspects of alternative lifestyles through fictional stories. The problem was that he had gained the support of the LGBT community without, by his own admission, ever acknowledging his membership within that community. But now all is forgiven. Harris has redeemed himself by putting Raymond, Basil and his other ever-popular fictional characters to rest, and by sharing the story-his story-that inspired their creation.
It began with a symbolic journey home after his 1990 suicide attempt. He encounters an early childhood photo of himself during a visit with his grandmother. Harris contemplates the happiness he sees in his former self, and determines that if it existed at one point then it still must be attainable.
In his highly respected tome on depression, The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon writes, “Depression is the flaw in love.” In the first few pages of Brokenhearted, readers become privy to flaws in the love demonstrated to Harris by his stepfadier, Ben. In a moment of excitement while preparing for church on Easter Sunday, a young Harris attempts to impress Ben by showing off his new coat-with a twirl. An enraged and cussing Ben accosts him: “Look at you. You fuckin’ little sissy with this coat all buttoned up like a little girl. Don’t you know better? Men don’t button up their coats all the way.” This incident begins Harris’ troubled relationship with Ben, his suppressed sexual identity and his continual search for love in all the wrong places.
The story then travels along the typical gay coming out arc: boy has academic and social ups and downs in school; boy struggles against his emerging sexual identity; boy has bad experiences when he gives in to these struggles; young man treads on the periphery of gay life; inexperienced yet curious man has meaningless sexual encounters (he offers disappointingly few details); determined man has successful career; lonely man develops secretive and unfulfilling same-gender relationships; sad and angry man slumps into a progressively deep depression and attempts suicide; healing man finds strength in family, friendship and prayer; older and wiser man writes multiple best-selling novels.
Readers may recognize some of their friends-and if they’re honest, perhaps themselves-in Harris’ depiction of his life. What they may not recognize is the outcome. The implied answer to the memoir’s tide question becomes sickeningly if-it-happened-to-me-it-could-happen-to-you: sentimental, preachy and unbelievable. If trudi is indeed stranger than fiction, readers will discover that Harris’ fiction is perhaps more fulfilling than his nonfiction; many of the incidents in his characters’ lives mirror his own (but it’s far easier to accept their happy endings, since belief is suspended.)
Don’t be dismayed; all is not lost. Brokenhearted speaks directly to what Harris has repeatedly espoused in his previous eight novels-that love has many forms and we get from it what we put into it, that being true to ourselves helps us in our search for true love, mat healthy friendships and family relationships are essential, that unchecked despair can become monstrous and debilitating, that HIV/AIDS is devastating the black community, that there is power in prayer. In doing so, he fulfills loyal fans’ expectations, and subsequently advances black gay liberation, placing once secretive conversations that have often resulted in deadly consequences on the discussion tables and agendas, in the living rooms and conference spaces, of families, cultural groups and social and political organizations. If they’re really lucky, readers’ stories can end similarly to Harris’: “Now I know mat I never have to be brokenhearted again. And neither do you.” Wouldn’t that be grand?
This review appeared in the Lambda Book Report (Dec 2003/Jan 2004. Vol. 12, Iss. 5/6; pg. 32, 2 pgs)