Review: Blackbird by Larry DuplechanBlackbird
with an introduction by Michael Nava.
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press - Little Sister’s Classics no.6. 20th anniversary reprint. 2006. First published 1986,
Reviewed by John Dixon
On page one of this coming-out, coming-of-age novel the black hero Johnnie Ray Rousseau has his college yearbook signed by his best friend Efrem. ‘May your life be a movie in which you are Orson Welles: Write it – direct it – star in it.’
It doesn’t turn out quite like this. Johnnie’s studying English, hoping to go to UCLA, but what he writes is less movie-script than a musical; song titles and lyrics feature prominently. He’s the first person narrator throughout, but he doesn’t get the star lead in a college play he’s set his heart on. And as for directing, though his burgeoning feelings are ever-present – if he gets over-stimulated he deflates by reciting the Lord is my Shepherd over and over again! – he never takes the lead in expressing and sharing them.
His parents are conformist church-goers. Johnnie knows he’s different, but not in the way of the teenage experiences in Catcher in the Rye. He prefers the script of the Boys in the Band. He suspects Efrem’s gay, but doesn’t fancy him. He likes blondes, such as Todd, who definitely isn’t. He’s informed that he is gay by the dual character Carolann aka Chrystal. He admits as much to his black college friend Cherie. However, she won’t believe him and seduces him. This first sexual encounter doesn’t change his conviction about his sexuality or alter his friendship with Cherie. His father thinks he’s dating Cherie regularly and hands out rubbers. His first male contact is Marshall, an actor who ditches Johnnie and actually makes it into films. He is forced to come out when Efrem is caught in bed with a boy and beaten up by his own father. An over-eager stand-in church pastor goes to Johnnie’s parents and suggests Johnny may benefit from an exorcism. Johnny feigns conversion. He doesn’t leave home. That coming-of-age moment is Ephrem’s. ‘That’s where you’re wrong, Mother. I’m eighteen now. And I can do as I like.’
The novel was acknowledged as the first to deal with gay coming-out. However, several critics accused the author of not being sufficiently pro-active, especially on the racial issue. There is a strength here, hidden in the changes of style and the style is what keeps this novel fresh. When the tone loses its undoubted sparkle we know Johnnie is being forced to act out of character. This happens most markedly in the casting of the college play.
Johnny has hopes.
‘I would have given both my chest hairs to play that scene.’
The hitch is
‘If I did get cast, I’d undoubtedly have to nuzzle some little flower of white womanhood right here on the stage. I just don’t know if this town’s quite ready for that.’
The teacher organising the play agrees with the town - which is just as bigoted in other ‘moral issues’ and has recently exiled Todd for making the Pastor’s daughter pregnant. The lead role goes to a lesser actor who is white.
‘Suddenly I felt something go twang in me, like the harp string that breaks in the Cherry Orchard’
He confronts the teacher and surprises himself.
‘I was not known for talking back to teachers, let alone swearing at them.’
The change in tone, the modulation of key is as telling – and more readable – than a head-on diatribe.
The novel is reissued as one of the Little Sister Classics, devoted to titles ‘from our queer past.’ Other titles include The Song of the Loon and Finistere. They all have introductions, reviews and interviews. Would we had a comparable press in England!
John Dixon has had several poems and short stories published, including in Chroma. He has won a prize in the Bridport Short Story competition, and was editor/contributor to Fiction in Libraries. He is a member of the Gay Author’s Workshop and is on the editorial board of and contributor to the forthcoming GAW short story anthology ‘People my mother warned you about.’ He hopes shortly to have his novel ‘Push harder Mummy, I want to come out’ published by Paradise Press. He has read his work at launches and several local LGTB events.