Do Not Pass Go : Judging from E. Lynn Harris's success, gay fiction is going in circles : INVISIBLE LIFE, By E. Lynn Harris (Anchor Books: $9.95; 268 pp.) : JUST AS I AM, By E. Lynn Harris (Doubleday: $21.95; 368 pp.)

David Ehrenstein is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer and critic

'They lived in fear, they loved in secret.'

'A new adult novel of the torments and temptations of abnormal desires.'

'An electrifying novel of a man who had an uncontrollable desire for other men!'

So blazed the cover blurbs of the many paperback novels devoted to the "strange twilight world of the homosexual" that sold in drugstore book racks in the years before Stonewall. In the 1940s, when these books first appeared, cover art generally featured lone figures looking shamefully downward. By the early '60s, in the wake of the success of Jean Genet's "Our Lady of the Flowers," and John Rechy's "Desire in the Shadows," and "The Occasional Man" had reconfigured into two men placed against a jet black background, one looking longingly at the other who is turned away at an angle and staring shamefully at the ground.

With the rise of gay and lesbian civil rights movement, such covers fell from fashion--along with the lurid, downbeat tone of the stories contained between them. The early '70s novels of Gordon Merrick (a homo-erotic Judith Krantz avant la lettre ) featured brightly colored illustrations of handsome hunks sunning themselves on Fire Island or languidly lounging around a phenomenally expensive Manhattan townhouse.

With conspicuous consumption scarcely fitting in to the ACT-UP era of the 1980s, such sybaritic covers--and the lusty romanticism promised within--have all but vanished. But now comes E. Lynn Harris' "Just As I Am." The cover? Two black men in a semi-embrace (one stands behind the other, touching his partner at the shoulder and waist) while a black woman passes by on the left glancing longingly toward them. It's brightly lit. Neither of the men is casting shameful downward looks. And it's in hardcover!

But don't start breaking out the Chardonnay just yet.

"Invisible Life" and its sequel "Just As I Am" are set in the demimonde of closeted, urban, upscale black gay and bisexual men. Successful in everything except their emotional lives, Harris' characters represent a generation that has profited from the gains of the civil rights movement without ever having participated in it, yet feels hostile to a gay and lesbian movement it (wrongly) regards as the exclusive province of whites. This is potentially rich material. Unfortunately Harris is barely up to the task of regurgitating the cliches of previous generations gay pulpsters.

"I longed for a love that would make me feel like the soothing love songs that caused an involuntary smile to linger not only on my face but in my heart," sighs Harris' hero (inwardly of course). But such noble ideals don't stop him from spending endless hours pursuing every deeply closeted, self-hating black man he can find. Between bouts with these troubled swains, he courts--and nearly marries--a woman whose chief attraction is that her love for him proves he isn't "completely gay."

Self-deceiving protagonists are a literary mainstay. A novelist capable of providing the proper context can make even the most problematic of protagonists compelling. Harris would appear to be unconcerned with this; his hero's many acts of bad faith tromp across page after page, unchecked and unremarked.

AIDS, the most important human health tragedy of our time, figures in both novels; killing a minor character in the first and a major one in the second. But if Harris has had any actual experience in dealing with the disease, it isn't apparent. A description of a typical evening at Keller's bar in the New York's West Village is one of the few things in either volume that rings with any degree of truth. Everything else appears through a grid of pop novel cliches; as if the author, unable to trust his own instincts, felt he had to "channel" the ghost of the late-lamented Jacqueline Suzanne before putting pen to paper. All things considered, that wouldn't be such a bad idea provided one had a sense of humor. Harris has none.

"I was listening to a Kathleen Battle CD when my doorman buzzed me and told me Delaney was on her way upstairs," reads one breathless bit of exposition. "Basil's backside captured my attention as I walked through the huge lobby of the Hilton Hotel," reads another. It's in lines like these that Harris' talents are truly revealed. For such neat linkages of casual sex and consumer opulence underscore his awareness that he isn't addressing an audience of readers, but of shoppers.

Wallace Thurman, Melvin Dixon, June Jordan, Audre Lord, Joseph Beam, Steve Corbin and Essex Hemphill (to name just a few) have more to say about the African-American gay and lesbian experience than E. Lynn Harris could ever imagine, but you're not likely to find them featured in the major chain bookstores. "Invisible Life" and "Just As I Am" are there however--right alongside the like-minded tales of Judith Krantz, Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, et al.--and both are riding high on the African American bestseller lists (which ran in these pages last week).

Back in the early 1960s, James Baldwin's novel of gay/bisexual African-American life, "Another Country," was a runaway bestseller. Despite a spate of hostile reviews clearly upset by the sexuality of Baldwin's characters, the book reached mass audiences as few novels by an African-American--regardless of subject--had ever done before (or since). Deeply passionate, utterly personal and completely indifferent to the demands of either radical politics or polite society, "Another Country" slipped through the cracks of a then-closing divide between serious and commercial literature.

There is no chance of something like that happening today.

The lines have been clearly drawn between what the powerful publishing machine will push and what is to be left to the ghetto of small specialty presses and university presses. Serious gay/lesbian African-American literature is part of the ghetto. E. Lynn Harris is not.

Thanks to the four horsemen of the daytime talk show apocalypse--Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jessy Raphael, Geraldo Rivera and Montel Williams--the fascination many heterosexual women have for homosexual men has----finally--been revealed as a market ripe for the plucking. Harris, an Atlanta-based marketing executive, is clearly aware of this fact. Self-publishing "Invisible Life" in 1992, he distributed it to bookstores in areas he had carefully scouted in advance for sales potential. As a result, it became a regional bestseller, and Doubleday agreed to publish its sequel, "Just As I Am," in hardcover while re-releasing "Life" as an Anchor paperback.

Judging from the cover of "Just As I Am," it's clear that Doubleday knows the books with gay subject matter pitched to a "crossover" audience of heterosexual females could prove to have as big a sales potential in this country as they already do in Japan. The widespread enthusiasm among Japanese housewives for gay romance novels, E. M. Forster's "Maurice" on both page and screen (the film's director, James Ivory, has been approached to turn his work into a stage musical, and its star, Hugh Grant, has become a pin-up heartthrob), and the growing subculture of the okoge (Japanese for "fag hag") has led to such curious circumstances as Gus Van Sant's decidedly non-mainstream film "My Own Private Idaho" getting the major part of its financing from Japan--surely because of its gay subject matter.

First it was miniaturized circuitry, then the automobile, now it's homosexuality. Are we going to let the Japanese beat us to the sales punch again? Not if E. Lynn Harris has anything to do about it.

You can judge a book by its cover.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Sunday July 31, 1994 Home Edition Book Review Page 11 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction In the same issue (July 10), a dropped line in "Do Not Pass Go" by David Ehrenstein resulted in some mismatching: The success of books such as Jean Genet's "Our Lady of the Flowers" and John Rechy's "City of Night" affected the treatment of cover art for books such as "Desire in the Shadows" and "The Occasional Man."
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