First novels are tough, especially ones that aim to tell a large story. Big stories usually require big casts, which can be difficult for even the most experienced novelists to manage. That Gar McVey-Russell does it pretty well right out of the box speaks highly of his skills, and by about a third of the way through, his tale gets its game and chugs along nicely, pulled by a solidly emotional core, and its ending satisfies with a vengeance.
Alfonso Berry, gay son of a city councilman and grandson of the state’s first African American legislator, is still grieving for his late cousin Carlton, an AIDS casualty. Basing himself on the queer street in the ‘hood, Alfonso has a lot on his plate. He’s going to college, thinking about coming out to his homophobic father, and wondering if his crush Jameel feels the same way he does. When the Huckleberry Community Clinic gets torched, not only does his father applaud its destruction because of its “negative influence” (i.e., needle exchange) on the neighborhood, he actively runs on a platform of exclusion and expects Alfonso to support that. But when Alfonso nearly loses his life in a police beating at a rally in support of the clinic, minds and courses change.
The last two thirds of this book are extremely compelling and had me totally involved. But it took a while to get rolling for me, mainly because the first few chapters are front-loaded with character introductions, most of which are only a few paragraphs long. The first four chapters alone introduce upward of twenty characters with little interaction that helps the reader distinguish between them. Many of these are incidental–especially those involved in the African Students Association–but it’s impossible to tell at that point who will become important, so I found it difficult to discern which ones I should pay the most attention to.
That said, there’s much here to enjoy. I particularly liked Alfonso’s father’s journey and the realizations he made during its course. Berry has difficulties not only with his son, but with the legacy of his late father as well as the local conservative reverend and a lesbian opponent he’d wronged during their last match-up. He has a lot of to atone for, but Russell manages to subtly change him from oppressor to victim, thus winning him some sympathy he didn’t originally have. The sub-plot between Alfonso and Jameel, however, is less successful because Jameel isn’t as clearly drawn as some of the other characters. I could never figure out why Alfonso liked him.
Of the many minor characters, Sammy, the former jazz musician turned shopkeeper, is a standout. Wise and unafraid to show his wisdom, he clearly dominates the neighborhood and becomes a touchstone as well as a sounding board for many of its younger members. I wish I’d seen more of Councilman Berry’s opponent Charlotte Hunter, who is only in a few scenes but makes her appearances memorable.
In the final analysis, however, the book is about Alfonso and his father’s relationship, and that’s where Russell shines. Their difficulties are about more than Alfonso’s sexuality, though that proves to be the initial flashpoint. Berry is disappointed in himself, his own life, and even his successes–taking all of that out on Alfonso.
Sin Against the Race is an extremely promising first novel, slightly unfocused but emotionally spot-on, and I’d enthusiastically recommend it. I think Russell’s next will really prove his worth, and I’m looking forward to what he has to offer.
© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler