The Vivian Maier photo gracing the cover of Cary Alan Johnson’s Desire Lines pretty much tells you what you need to know. A young Black boy stands on the deck of a ferry with his hands in his back pockets, looking at the 1980s Manhattan skyline as he tries to figure out how. or even if, he figures into that cityscape. As it turns out, part of the answer lies in Africa, part of it waits in the bars, and yet another part balances addiction and redemption in Johnson’s restless and searching debut novel.
An unnamed Black narrator raised in Brooklyn longs for the life on the other side of the river, getting as far as Hell’s Kitchen, where he lives in a five-floor walkup as he and his friends cruise the bars and make connections just as the AIDS crisis comes along. In part to escape the deadly disease, our narrator takes the Peace Corps route to Zaire. In orientation for that trip, he meets a straight, biracial woman named Regina who becomes his best friend both in Africa and when they return to New York City. They continue as roommates, the narrator falling for a man who introduces him to cocaine and, finally, crack before he breaks the downward spiral.
Johnson obviously knows the milieu and the time period in question, as his descriptions of the political and sexual landscape are dead accurate, and I’ll also wager he knows something about substance abuse. He does an excellent job with the gradations of addictive behavior, and the scene where he finally realizes his dealer is entirely in control is both scarifying and heart-rending.
Two of the most important characters here, however, are the places in which the narrator lives. He has NYC–both Brooklyn and Manhattan–down cold. You can feel the grit and decay of the 80s. But the chapters taking place in Africa are noticeably less impressive in terms of local flavor, which initially bothered me. However, as these episodes unfold, it’s easy to see the primary goal here is the introduction of Regina and the formation of their friendship rather than a travelogue.
Desire Lines is a gritty, realistic trip back to some hard times, but its characters and sense of place make it worth your while.
© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler