2022 (Querelle Press)
When we first meet the unnamed narrator at the center of Cary Alan Johnson´s powerful debut novel, he´s cruising in Central Park. He´s scanning and being selective about his options, a lion in this jungle of desire. He´s young, Black, healthy, and strong, and isn´t going to hook up with just anybody. Eventually, he accepts an invitation from a couple of strangers: one just got out of prison, and the other just wants to watch. The encounter is brief, urgent, and hot, fulfilling everyone´s craving in unambiguous terms. Also, the sex thankfully lasts only a few minutes, as our narrator needs to hustle back to his job working in the nearby museum´s archive department.
Set mostly during the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic, Desire Lines bounces across multiple public and private spaces as experienced through the lens of an African-American gay man. Johnson´s candid prose proves to be a consistently welcome guide, taking us on an intimate odyssey through various clubs and apartments in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. In addition to Central Park, readers enter into gay clubs down in the Village and around Times Square, as well as the hidden pick-up scene of the public bathrooms dotting the city´s underground subway system.
For readers of contemporary gay literature, these locations might be familiar, but Johnson enriches the context by traveling outside of the city, and broadens the themes beyond just homoeroticism and safer sex during the plague years. The scenes set in upstate New York, where the narrator goes with his family as a teenager and has his first homosexual experience, are beautiful and heartbreaking. The encounter (with an older man) is complicated, one fraught with ambivalence and unease as well as longing. What does our narrator do with this experience? How does this influence the kinds of lovers and issues he will need to confront in his later years? These parts of the novel are wonderful, and I applaud Johnson for shining a light on the sorts of experiences shared by many young queer men coming of age in the ´70s and ´80s. Coming out before the internet and under the shadow of AIDS was different, and it´s important to hear voices about this period in queer history (and particularly from more people of color).
Lost in his personal and professional life, and scared by the growing specter of friends and mentors testing positive for HIV, our narrator accepts a position with the Peace Corps in Zaire. The trip proves pivotal, as it is on this trip that he meets Regina, a biracial straight gal who becomes key to his personal salvation later. Like the chapters set in upstate New York, the ones Johnson spends in Africa are magnificent, as the author eloquently contrasts class, privilege, and gay identity between the two continents.
When he returns to New York with Regina, renting an apartment together in Brooklyn, at first it seems like nothing can stop him from starting fresh. He has the financial aid to attend a graduate program at New York University, he is reconnecting with friends, forming his new family. However, when he meets Devyn, Desire Lines takes us down a surprisingly dark path, linking sex with drug addiction, depression, and violence. The details of this portion of the novel, as well as how the story resolves, are scathing for their candor--the kind of honesty that could only be made by someone who knows firsthand what it´s like to hit rock-bottom.
Desire Lines contains some highly erotic scenes between gay men, but is much more than that. For readers that want a intelligently-written confessional story that probes the intersection of race, sexuality, class, addiction, and more, please pick up a copy of Cary Alan Johnson´s novel.