Just when you thought it was safe to go back to church, Preston Allen writes Jesus Boy, a story about a young Christian, Elwyn Parker, who falls in love with an older woman, Elaine Morrisohn, a matriarch in the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters.
In many ways this was a difficult book to review, not only because Preston Allen is my friend and colleague at Miami Dade College, but also because of my own history with fundamentalist Christianity and Preston’s ability to depict the tortured consciousness of a teenage true believer at war with his faith and his flesh:
At sixteen, I met my first great temptation, and I yielded with surprisingly little resistance, I who had proclaimed myself strong in the Lord. There had been, it seems, a chink in my armor, through which Satan had thrust his wicked sword (34).
And as if dealing with his hyperactive conscience wasn’t enough, Elwyn’s plight is exacerbated by Elaine Morrisohn’s deliberate pursuit of him, even during church services:
As she sat down with a satisfied smile on her face, she knew she was being naughty. She shouldn’t have shouted like that, but she was trying to send him a message by shouting like she did during orgasm…She just wanted to rip off her clothes and fly to him. He was so tight and so fresh and so full of juice…he was a lean, strong fresh-tasting black boy—he looked good enough to eat (77).
But Elwyn wants to be saved. Desperately. Yet the God that Elwyn serves is a God of wrath who is eager to punish sinners, especially women who wear pants or jewelry and who listen to “worldly” music. Growing up in this kind of environment Elwyn becomes a holier-than-thou preacher—an attitude that he exhibits long after he has left the fold:
God’s people have to be apart. They have to be different. Christians these days—I don’t understand them at all. They go to parties, they drink, they have premarital sex, they wear the fashions of the world. Even the music. These days you can’t tell the difference between a church song and hip hop (361).
What is remarkable about Jesus Boy is Allen’s use of point of view. He writes as an insider, someone who knows the secrets within the black community and reports the intimacies of people who want to live, love, and praise God. And he does this without resorting to stereotypes or clichés. Allen explores the black family and black religion without the filters of white validation, effectively banishing the "double consciousness" theory of W. E. B. Du Bois. The characters in Jesus Boy exist in a milieu in which whites exist peripherally. Jesus Boy asserts without rancor: This is our story.
And this perhaps is one of the major accomplishments of the novel. Allen uncovers the hypocrisies within the black church in the way that James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain exposed the vision of its adherents—a world divided not along racial lines, but between the “saved” and the unsaved. And because being “saved” requires denial of the most basic human impulses, the “saved” are always in state of guilt over the state of their soul:
Demons, I was certain, frolicked in my room after the lights were turned off. At night, I watched stricken with fear, as the headlights of passing automobiles cast animated shadows on the walls of my room. Only God, who I believed loved my singing voice, could protect me from the wickedness lurking in the dark. Thus, I sang all of God’s favorite tunes—hummed when I didn’t know the words—in order to earn his protection (13).
There is much to admire about Jesus Boy. From the cover designed like an old family Bible to the genealogy list of the begetting that took place in Elwyn’s family, the novel has hints of Faulkner with an oversexed patriarch and a family history of incest, abuse, and illicit romance. Preston Allen has truly written what Dennis Lehane has deemed a “tender masterpiece.”
Preston L. Allen, a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, is the author of the critically acclaimed novel All or Nothing (Akashic) and the award-winning collection Churchboys and Other Sinners (Carolina Wren Press). His stories have appeared in numerous magazines and journals and have been anthologized in Brown Sugar (Penguin), Miami Noir (Akashic), and Las Vegas Noir (Akashic). He lives in South Florida.