By Robin Givhan
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; C04
IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE
By E. Lynn Harris
St. Martin's. 297 pp. $24.99
Let's get this basic fact out of the way: This is not a well-written novel. E. Lynn Harris, who completed "In My Father's House" before his death in 2009, does not have a poetic voice or even a particularly eloquent one. This is not a work of detail-oriented craftsmanship.
To be fair, Harris wasn't aiming for high prose, but rather a fast-paced tale that mashes up Harlequin-style melodrama with a crime potboiler. His distinctive twist has the drama unfolding against the backdrop of the upscale black, gay social scene -- a favorite trope that made him a best-selling author. But in this case, at least, his lumbering writing distracts from the enjoyment, as when he describes a character as "thick as a piece of corn bread" and "interpersonally generous."
"In My Father's House" is a journey through the sex-filled life of Bentley L. Dean III, an African American man born into wealth. When Dean reveals to his parents -- portrayed as two-dimensional snobs -- that he's gay, the dashing son is cast out and must make his own fortune as the co-owner of a model agency based in Miami.
As the company struggles through the recession, a mysterious businessman knocks on his door with a shady proposition that could revitalize the agency. Sex, violence and overwrought descriptions of impossibly attractive men follow: "Watching Warren stroll up to me with a big, childlike grin that was at odds with his powerfully built adult male body, I'd never seen him look more handsome. It was as if something so perfectly formed had stepped right out of nature itself. As if he were another one of God's gifts to mankind, just like the hills and lakes in the distance."
In order to give shape to the characters, whose stories stretch from Miami Beach to Detroit to Los Angeles, Harris relies heavily on the semiotics of stuff: Oddly placed details about the merchandise people consume stand in for character development. "While he was far more Internet savvy than most of his colleagues who relied on secretaries, Father was old school when it came to the newspapers. He had to read them in his kitchen every morning. Though he had stainless steel appliances and every modern convenience, he said a successful man stuck to certain habits to anchor his day." Rarely have refrigerators and dishwashers been put to such symbolic use.
There's little nuance in Harris's descriptions of emotional family interaction, sexual encounters or long-term relationships. Indeed, the sex scenes border on the pornographic, not because they are especially tawdry but because they are wholly focused on the physical and give little attention to the inner life of these characters.
All of the shenanigans ascribed to Harris's heavy-breathing, beautiful people eventually lead to a wholly implausible denouement. Loyal readers who see this tale to its dubious conclusion should be congratulated for their stubborn perseverance.
Givhan is the fashion editor of The Washington Post.