cover image Rainbow Milk

Rainbow Milk

Paul Mendez. Doubleday, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-385-54706-2

Mendez dazzles with his debut, an explosive bildungsroman drawing on the legacy of Britain’s Windrush generation of 1950s migrants from the West Indies. Blind boxer turned expert gardener Norman Alonso details his history in a ravishing patois as he arrives from Jamaica to the coal town of Blixton in 1956 along with his housekeeper wife, Claudette, and their two children. Norman’s hope for a fresh life dissolves into despair as he confronts racism (someone paints “KBW” on their door, for Keep Britain White) and shame over the difficulty in providing for his family (“Depression gwine guh kill me dead,” he exclaims in an interior monologue). Mendez then moves 50 years forward to Alonso’s gay grandson, 19-year-old Jesse McCarthy, an aspiring writer who was “disfellowshipped” from his Jehovah’s Witness family after seeking a more vibrant and free life in London. He cruises public bathrooms, bars, and discos before becoming a rent boy and then (influenced by James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room) develops a relationship with an older white man. After discovering a shocking revelation from his past, Jesse moves toward a promising future. Mendez has a full bag of tricks and a sprawling range, deploying biting social commentary; unflinching, intense sex scenes; and exquisite prose, making his work alternately reminiscent of Bernadine Evaristo, Garth Greenwell, Zadie Smith, and Alan Hollinghurst. Readers will be hard put to find a more inspired voice. (June)