A young man leaves his affluent Indianapolis home in the 1980s, lands in New York City and seeks well, not fame and fortune, but some of the lustier glories of the big city. And since he is a young Black gay man with unresolved sorrow in his heart, a flamboyant attitude and a quick mind, he can only be Trey Singleton in Rasheed Newson's My Government Means to Kill Me.
Trey is a teenager when his life in the Big Apple begins in this novel, which will be published next week. He knows he stands out. Sometimes, he embraces it and sometimes, he acknowledges that it is not half of who he is. From his first job as a bicycle messenger, Trey knows he doesn't fit in. He also knows he is going to have to take it if he plans to stay. There is an acknowledgement and honesty to Trey that is immediately endearing.
Although he knows that "the average person was never going to bestow pity or mercy on me", he also quickly learns that "We are not so narrowly defined as society would have us believe."
Trey soon discovers Mt. Morris, a bathhouse that has not been closed down because of its mostly Black clientele. There, he cruises for quick sex and becomes friends with Bayard Rustin. This Rustin feels and sounds like the little I know of the real Rustin, whether he would ever have been in such a setting or not. Like all the real people mentioned in the novel, each chapter, or lesson, has a footnote when they are introduced that is factual. (Excuse me for a moment. Footnotes! Oh joy! Rapture! My nerdy little heart was delighted.)
Rustin is one of several characters who serve as anchors while Trey bounces around discovering the ups and downs of life in the big city. Rustin serves as both advisor and Greek chorus, telling Trey and the reader of how far things had come even back in the 1980s.
When Trey and his roommate can't pay rent, Trey plows through the old-fashioned kind of research, when one dug through paper documents in dusty basements. He then finagles his way into a rent strike against the landlord who is, of course, Fred Trump. The portrayal of that despot is both a clue into why his son turned out the way he did and a portend of things to come. It is brilliantly written, as are other setpieces with prominent conservatives of the era.
As Trey becomes more involved in his New York life, he is drawn toward activism. The rent strike is the tipping point. In this and all the outer things that happen to Trey, his observations about himself apply not just to the action at hand, but to him. To wit:
If we never meet our despicable adversaries, we'd never be forced to find out how brave, resilient, and cunning we can be.
This bit of wisdom applies to the trauma Trey carries from his childhood, when something happened that he was at least in part responsible for and which is the main reason he left home. In between episodes that portray 1980s New York City and the explosion of the AIDS crisis, Trey deals with his past. It will affect his future. And it will involve confronting demons, both those in his head and those in his family. But one of Trey's great strengths is his self-awareness and knowledge:
We could blame it all on our families, but then we'd never find the keys to unlock our cells.
This self-awareness and knowledge also leads to one of those big "oof" reading moments when the air can leave the reader's innards and tears may come to one's eyes:
What flesh-and-blood man was ever going to immediately recognize the inner beauty and value in me, then make the effort to machete his way through the thorny thickets of insecurities and defense mechanisms surrounding my heart?
As Trey becomes involved with ACT UP, the reason for the book's title comes to the fore. It is a brutal realization that this is how dire things were. And a reminder that we're not that far from seeing how dire things are close to being again:
The point is to let your bruised and bloodied bodies serve as evidence that the government means to kill you, if you so much as protest its bigoted policies.
The novel is not all doom and gloom though. Through all the ups and downs in Trey's life and those of his friends, there is a cheekiness, an earnestness and an honesty to the story that thoroughly anchors it. My Government Means to Kill Me is not only a brilliant historical novel of those times, it is a bold statement of how someone who could have been an outcast doesn't settle for being left out.
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