Learning to Be True to Oneself Novel Examines Sexual Identity

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JUST AS I AM A novel by E. Lynn Harris 368 pages, Doubleday, $21.95

IT IS FITTING that "Invisible Life," E. Lynn Harris' debut novel, began with a reference to Langston Hughes. Biographers continue to contemplate the exact nature of Hughes' sexuality, and it was Hughes who explored the phenomena of the "tragic mulatto" in his poem "Cross."

Harris combines these themes with an exploration into the life of the "sexual mulatto" in "Invisible Life," in which the protagonist discovers his dual sexual interest in women and men. "Just As I Am" begins where "Invisible Life" ended. This sequel is another breezy and brilliant sexual coming-of-age analysis by Harris.

The author effortlessly weaves his tale told in the alternating voices of former lovers Nicole Marie Springer and Raymond Winston Tyler Jr. Just as effortlessly, Harris integrates historical footnotes into the plot. For example, Raymond Jr. describes himself as "a child of the integrated New South, born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, a city that in the past was known more for church bombing than being the bedrock of college football."

Later, Raymond Jr. is in an Atlanta church and wonders how the congregation would fare without its gay and lesbian contingent. Harris goes on to explore religion through the character of Sheila, who is also known as "Ms. Jesus." Kyle, a flamboyant individual who likes to glamorize the gay lifestyle, challenges one-sided religious rhetoric. He swears that if he hears the "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" line once more, he'll explode.

Too often, when a writer creates more than two prominent characters, they share the same language. Consequently, the dialogue fails, as does the demarcation between personalities. To Harris' credit, his characters are clearly drawn, and their language and lifestyles are refreshingly dissimilar.

One of the most fascinating characters is Basil Henderson. Basil is a homophobic bisexual who has bought into the heterosexual American dream. A professional football player, Basil falls in lust with Raymond Jr. During a rendezvous, Basil's woman friend interrupts the men. Symbolism and reality clash when Basil shoves Raymond Jr. into the closet: "For a moment, in my shocked silence, I was convinced this was a bad dream," Raymond says. "I just knew I would wake up any moment but then I suddenly heard Basil's and Dyanna's voices outside in what sounded like friendly conversation. …