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
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. …