Today's readers of gay fiction can be excused for believing that all of the stories have been told. From coming out, illness and grief, to the right to marry and have children, and the nebulous concept of the "bromance", it feels as if novelists increasingly retread old ground.
Those familiar with Bernadine Evaristo's Blonde Roots (2008), contrastingly, will await Mr Loverman prepared for the unexpected. Ingeniously, that title saw the author invert the oft-told story of the transatlantic slave trade, telling the story of a "whyte" Englishwoman, Doris, smuggled to the New World to be owned by her black masters. Evaristo's second prose novel similarly transforms our often narrow perceptions of gay men in England. The familiar trope of the closet is deployed, but contested and reworked in winningly credible, moving ways.
Barrington Jedidiah Walker, an Antiguan-born, nattily-dressed Hackney fixture, has difficult relations with his wife, Carmel, his two children, and his richly adolescent grandson. What he also has is a six-decade long secret sexual relationship with childhood love, "Uncle Morris". Where peers laugh that he and Morris are so close that they may as well be married, the joke, it transpires, is upon the entire community. For "Mr Loverman", at the age of 74, is reviewing his options, finally ready to "come out".
Evaristo's sprightly prose oscillates between Barry's first-person account of how he struggles towards his goal, and a succession of interior monologues from his long-suffering, but uncomprehending spouse, which fill in the back story. The effect is variously comical, agonising and, ultimately, moving. Evaristo tells us of lives we imagined we knew, while rearranging much more than the furniture.
Immigrant gay lives have too often been glanced at only on the margins of "mainstream" experience. Still, the most radical reversal of expectations in Mr Loverman relates to the paucity of novels in which older gay experiences and perceptions play any role. Barry's mental journey revolves around a generationally specific reawakening. After a lifetime of conformism, he comes to appreciate that the 21st century offers new ways of living and loving, and that the young "exhibitionists" on Old Compton Street may, after all, offer him a vital example of how to reinvent himself.
A wealth of secondary characters offers further humorous diversion, such as Pastor George, the hypocritical Pentecostal "slimeball" priest who denounces homosexuality from the pulpit one minute, to be ministered to by a rent boy the next. The novel's epigraph comes from James Baldwin - fittingly, since the laughably misinformed prejudices aired by members of the congregation are most reminiscent of the American author's 1965 play The Amen Corner, resurrected this summer at the National Theatre.
Richard Canning's edition of Ronald Firbank's 'Vainglory' is published by Penguin ClassicsReuse content