Review: 'Rainbow Milk' is an Ambitious Debut from an Important New Voice in LGBTQ+ Fiction

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 13, 2021

Review: 'Rainbow Milk' is an Ambitious Debut from an Important New Voice in LGBTQ+ Fiction

British journalist Paul Mendez makes a stunning debut as a novelist with "Rainbow Milk," the dual stories of generational journeys of a Jamaican ex-boxer Norman Alonso, who has immigrated with his wife and two children who to an mining town in England in the 1950s.

The first chapters are told in the lyrical patois by Norman, now a skilled gardener who is dealing with progressive blindness. But before we know his fate, Mendez time-travels to the tormented life of his grandson, Jesse McCarthy, a Black gay millennial growing up in a strict Jehovah's Witness family in the industrial Black Country.

Jesse is a 19 year old saving money for college with his job at McDonalds. At the same time, he is in training as an elder Witness, already knocking on door to spread the divine word. Secretly, he is reading the novels of James Baldwin, with dreams of becoming a writer himself.

When he steps out one night with a male friend for some beers and a joint, a casual conversation is laced with vague gay overtones, which are then gossiped about by church elders and reported to his parents. His white stepfather coldly tells him it's better if he moves out of the house. His mother goes along with all of the religious strictures to her life and relationships.

Using his savings for school, Jesse escapes to London and holes up in a youth hostel and starts to make friends. His first job in a restaurant ends in hilarious disaster. Meanwhile, explores the London bars, including a hustler bar that caters to middle-aged men. After a few awkward encounters, he starts building an exclusive client list of middle-age white men.

The scenarios may start out as strictly business with an exclusive client life, but they go in unexpected directions. Mendez does not back off of the racial aspects that come into play as a gay sex worker. Even with its graphic content, the characters are dimensional and the sex scenes are explicit and written with sensitivity,

Jesse develops genuine friendships, aside from the hustler/client business scenes and issues of fetishization of sex workers of color. Jesse becomes involved with a number of men, and when he moves into a boarding house he befriends a married man who is separated from his wife. They hang out, listen to music, and end up in bed. But it is more than a hook-up; they have fallen in love, until fate intervenes.

Through a series of events Jesse finds out about the hidden life of (and his own connection to) Norman, whom Jesse had thought long dead. In fact, Norman was erased from Jesse's family history — until Jesse discovers the truth.

The detailing with which Mendez evokes in England of the 1950s, specifically the layer of cultural divisions, captivates. And through Norman's voice there is raw dialectic poetry and music in Mendez's narrative.

Jesse's references to pop artists that turn up in the characters conversations careen from a sharp cultural note to author obsession. But mostly, Mendez's characters are captivating and dimensional. His subtext of racial, cultural and economic divides is spot on. "Rainbow Milk" is a most ambitious debut from an important new voice in GLBTQ+ literary fiction.

"Rainbow Milk," by Paul Mendez, is available in hardcover; 336 pgs; $26.95

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.