Shana Scudder is an instructor of First Year Writing at North Carolina State University, a novelist, and a freelance writer and copyeditor. Her work has appeared in publications such as The New York Post, Men's Fitness, and Muscle and Fitness Hers. Shana is a former reviewer for the websites Feminist Review, Bad Subjects, and Altar Magazine. Originally from Lynchburg, VA, she currently resides in the Raleigh, NC, area.
Rainbow Milk: A Novel by Paul Mendez; Doubleday; 336 pages; $26.95
Rainbow Milk was published in England in 2020 to great acclaim and named as one of the Observer’s best debut novels of the year. The U.S. version is set for release in June 2021 and is sure to electrify the literary world here as it did in Paul Mendez’s home country. The story centers on Jesse McCarthy, who, like Mendez, was raised in what is referred to as the “Black Country,” the West Midlands, England, in a strict Jehovah’s Witness household. Groomed to enter into a career of Witnessing ministry, Jesse is the shining star of his local community and congregation until he is outed by one of his friends after making an obfuscated pass at him during a rare night of intoxication. When this revelation strips Jesse of his home, family, and community, he moves to London and quickly discovers that the most effective way for a pretty young man with no education, aside from an inside-out knowledge of the Bible, to make a living is by being a rent boy, which he does until suffering a traumatic injury from a client and then meeting the love of his life soon after. Mendez successfully demonstrates that a world in which family relationships, love, and sex are created on one’s own terms is a world of true freedom. Jesse’s journey of self-creation occurs in a racist, homophobic society and thus Mendez is arguing that claiming one’s own life is not only imperative, but possible, even under the harshest conditions.
The novel opens in the 1950s, and the first section, which serves as a prologue, is narrated by a Jamaican boxer named Norman who came to England during the Windrush generation and settled in the West Midlands. While Norman is not biologically connected to Jesse (nor do we see him again once Jesse is introduced), he sets the stage for some of the key themes this novel explores, namely disillusionment, alienation, and the exploitation of Black bodies by white colonizers, actual and symbolic. By starting out with Windrush, Mendez sets the stage for the legacy of racism and oppression in England and shows that the struggles Jesse faces have a long history. Norman’s narrative is the story of Jesse’s grandparents without actually being about his grandparents. The prologue also foreshadows Jesse’s life of servitude, as his clients are mostly white. As a boxer, Norman literally gets beat up for a living, which foreshadows Jesse’s life as a prostitute and the physical toll this takes on him. Later, Jesse becomes a waiter in an upscale restaurant and even though his service to his largely white customer base comes with less risk of bodily harm, the psychological toll is similar.
The narrative jumps around in time even within the sections that are labelled with specific dates, and though this structure can be confusing, it works; the flashbacks come together to stitch the narrative of Jesse’s life together, yet this patchwork still manages to be clearly organized. The through-line of Jesse’s story is never lost, and Mendez manages to seamlessly connect every character and plot point through to the story’s satisfying conclusion. In this way, the novel calls to mind one of Mendez’s stated influences, Marcel Proust and his landmark work Swann’s Way.
The only section where the story seems to nearly lose its thread is in the last quarter of the novel, which is set in the present day. The jump in time from 2002 to 2016 feels jarring, but while this final section could benefit from some trimming, it is necessary for the story’s completion. It is here that a particularly pivotal conversation transpires between Jesse and a Lebanese friend, Jean-Alain, where Mendez via Jesse describes for his white readers what it might look like to really embody antiracism. In this scene Jesse describes the fact that his white partner Owen was offered the job of head of the English Department at his university and instead of accepting the position, he gave it to a woman of color. Of Owen, Jesse says, “There’s nothing he can do about being white, but he knows he has to be absolutely aware of his privileges at all times. He knows he is part of a group that has to give up some of its privileges, and he knows that having the choice to be able to give up some of his privileges is also a privilege.” In this way, Mendez demonstrates how white people can actually do something about the issue of unearned advantage. He communicates this message through a brief conversation rather than in the heavy-handed speeches that readers are sometimes given from writers like Richard Wright. The dialogue between Jesse and Jean-Alain is the definitive show-don’t-tell, encapsulating one of the most important messages a white reader can take from this book.
Themes of identity and alienation are common literary tropes, especially in coming-of-age novels, but the way Mendez tells this story does not tread these same well-worn paths. Jesse goes from being defined by the church and his family to being branded by his profession and his johns, but by the end he is living a life of self-determination. While Mendez certainly renders shades of James Baldwin, Rainbow Milk also calls to mind contemporary queer writers like Michelle Tea, Lynn Breedlove, and Leslie Feinberg, whose queer autobiographical novels explore many of the same themes this novel elucidates. Jesse’s story is one that sinks deep into the bones of the reader and illuminates Paul Mendez as an author who is sure to be a staple both on best-seller and academic reading lists for years to come.