Smith tells the story of a gay man’s tumultuous search for love in this erotic debut novel.
Wilson James doesn’t have much guidance while growing up in a dysfunctional African-American family in Los Angeles. His parents are split up: his father is a distant alcoholic and his mother is a woman given easily to fits of rage. Wilson can’t go to them with his everyday problems, let alone his secret, blossoming attraction to men. After an eye-opening tryst at age 13 with his father’s 24-year-old cousin, Wilson becomes certain that the love he needs can only come from other males—specifically, grown men with the experience to guide him through the unknown territory of pleasure. So begins his search for satisfaction, although his youth and vulnerability often place him in situations in which older men are able to take advantage of him in ways he doesn’t always understand. As Wilson learns to navigate adulthood, his quest for affection becomes a journey of personal growth in which he seeks to lay to rest the ghosts of his childhood and find a way to engender love—not only in the hearts of others, but also in himself. Smith is a sensual writer, executing every scene in lusty, baroque prose. Unfortunately, this lyricism often leads to overwrought passages that confuse rather than elucidate: “Fragile by circumstance, I was a slave to poignant inclusiveness, and my innocence preyed upon by trusted foes, as a naïve participant sworn into darkened territory.” Wilson and his primary love interests are well-drawn, and Smith teases out enough emotional investment to carry readers through to the end. That said, the novel would have benefited from a bit more compression; its 467 pages might have been stronger at a lean 300. On the whole, however, there’s a charm to Wilson’s voice and journey, his ability to find high drama in the commonplace, and his attempts to wring beauty from often grim (and sometimes grimy) surroundings.
An endearing, if protracted, novel of self-discovery.