Grady Harp, August 27, 2007
(view all comments by Grady Harp)
A Concerto for Quartet: Choices, Elegies and Eulogies
A Concerto for Orchestra is the term for symphonic works in which each is given space and spotlight to shine as soloist. In L.M. Ross' novel, MANHOOD: The Longest Moan, the orchestra is reduced to a quartet of friends and while Ross weaves the individual stories of each man's life of choices, moments of triumph and slides of misfortune, each character is so well defined that the spotlight must move with each chapter for that solo moment. Ross is one amazing writer, a poet who can move with ease into the area of storytelling and yet maintain the allure of brush stroke images too often found only in the terse poem form. He writes about the African American experience in New York City as well as any writer today, and brings all the juices and aromas and flavors of the idiosyncratic language of black conversation without missing a beat, and more importantly, without alienating his reader with a foreign language, so well molded is his conversational technique.
MANHOOD brings to life four men over a twenty tear period, beginning with the high school years when the four artistic lads formed a group 'Da Elixir' ("Once there was this gorgeous, gorgeous time when we were all living our dreams..") only to have the group splinter as each pursued his own dream. Tyrone become a writer always seeking true love, David is a natural dancer whose career in ballet is broken with his fractured leg, Browny longs to be an opera singer but is sidetracked by drugs and prison, and Pascal 'Face' Depina is a genetically perfect handsome man whose talent is tied to his looks and betrays the darker aspect of his personality. Through flash-forwards and flashbacks Ross takes us into the souls and libidos of each of these men, revealing intricacies of friendship, relationships, coping with both success and failure, confronting the spectre of AIDS and the brutality of homophobia, all the while writing some of the more erotic episodes ever written.
Ross' ability to relate the spectrum of sexual liaisons without creating an X-rated novel is due to his innate ability to find the poetry in all that he describes. His gifts as a wordsmith can be found on almost every page: 'I've no skin-memory of the texture of my father's arms wrapped around me'; 'Tyrone watched that inarticulate language of pain race across Browny's face. He saw how his fingers were entwined as if clutched in a useless prayer'; 'He wanted to be noticed, and once he was, he grew to hate it. He wanted to be loved, yet held disdain for those who tried like hell to love him. He wanted to know pleasure, yet he seemed to almost enjoy inflicting pain'; and the long blue moan is 'the penetrating sound of sex and sadness, sin and surrender. Ty listened, and it seemed that angry, lonely people cried out of that horn'.
Much of what Ross writes about is sexual encounters between African American men and the desire coupled with confusion about that need that they create. Yes, the erotic portions of the book are intensely sensuous and explore areas other writers have feared to tread. But this novel is far more than a book about lust: this is a finely hewn tome about finding the core of life and living it. In Ty's words, 'Snatch JOY! Snatch respect! Just snatch it any way you can. With your fist, with your lips, with your heart, with your example', and as with so many of the eloquent passages in this book, many are sadly recited as eulogies. Ross examines life's circle in this quartet of men, and it is a work a poetic beauty that should make the literary world take notice. For 416 pages L.M. Ross grabs us and holds us as his willing hostages. Let's hope there are more books coming down the pipeline! Grady Harp