Four young black women, dressed provocatively, dance and lip-synch under neon light. It could be a music video except the girls are in a cheap hotel room, wearing shoplifted dresses with the security tags intact. It’s a night of escape, a break from everyday life; at last the girls aren’t under the scrutiny of their parents or their crushes. They strike dramatic poses, clutch imaginary microphones and belt out Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’. For three minutes, the possibilities pop music seems to offer – wealth, fame, sexual adventure – provide a release. This is a scene from Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014), a film about a group of underprivileged teenagers navigating the banlieues of Paris, but it could be straight from Paul Mendez’s first novel, Rainbow Milk, which examines issues of race, class and sexual identity through the prism of millennial culture. About a third of the way through the book, its protagonist, Jesse McCarthy, summons the courage to enter a gay bar by invoking the sassiness of a member of the Sugababes: ‘He wanted to feel like Mutya in the video for the “We Don’t Give A Damn Mix” of “Freak Like Me” … strutting nonchalantly through the club as everyone turned round to notice her.’ Jesse’s body language is borrowed from music videos: the posturing is both unabashed and playful, all sly smiles and sultry glances. (To be wanted by everyone but completely untouchable – for Jesse, that’s the dream.) Rainbow Milk is a candid, sometimes uneven novel. But at moments it’s electrifying – an algorithmic pop ballad that suddenly transcends itself and sounds different, more affecting, like the opening chords of a Prince song.
We first encounter Jesse in 2002. He’s twenty years old, living in London and working as a rent boy. One evening he visits an overzealous client called Dave who makes him nervous. Does Jesse want coke? Poppers? What about Viagra? Dave is creepy: ‘The red sofa cushions had been arranged on the floor to make a bed over which was spread a clear plastic sheet.’ Unnerved by this middle-aged Englishman with his well-stocked drug drawer and plentiful supply of canes, paddles and belts, Jesse leaves. Dave – proving that a ‘Karen’ isn’t exclusively a type of entitled, middle-aged woman – threatens Jesse with a bad online review. Jesse, with only £18.33 in his bank account, quickly lines up another client. Enter Thurston. He’s 51, tall, slim and gentle. When they get down to business, and Jesse doesn’t instinctively reach for a condom, Thurston has a litany of questions. Do his clients often fuck him bareback? Has he been tested? The questions are compassionate rather than judgmental. Jesse feels, for the first time in a long while, that someone is invested in his welfare. ‘You’re a beautiful boy,’ the older man tells him, ‘and you have your whole life ahead of you.’ On Thurston’s staircase is a painting of a black male nude ‘clutching a large blood-red flower in his hand, the red paint dripping down his forearm as if he’d stigmatised himself on a thorn’. The religious overtones – a man suffering for his desires – aren’t lost on Jesse, a former Jehovah’s Witness preoccupied by the disparity between his past and present lives. Rainbow Milk is a book poised between worlds that skips across time and place: London in 2002, the same city 14 years later, the Black Country, where Jesse was born and raised, and the legacy of Jesse’s grandparents (part of the Windrush generation who arrived in England in 1956). Characters and objects, including Thurston’s painting, recur in a non-chronological narrative that Mendez has described in interviews as ‘semi-autobiographical’.
In 2001, Jesse is 19, and spends his time going door to door selling copies of the Watchtower and Awake! In one house, ‘an unassuming Victorian two-up, two-down’, he finds two men sitting on their sofa smoking a spliff and watching TV. They invite Jesse to join them. The three men look on ‘as grey smoke pours out from a great crater near the top of a New York skyscraper’. It suddenly occurs to Jesse, in the middle of what he believes could be Armageddon, that these men are a couple, that they ‘live together like man and wife’. The charming mundanity of their lives – slippers, computer games, cups of tea – legitimates, even normalises, the gay desire Jesse has been taught to denounce as gross. Later, coveting the cosiness of this set-up, Jesse suggests that he and his friend Fraser move in together: ‘I’d be like your girlfriend or summat. I’d look after ya.’ Jesse has misread the situation. Shortly afterwards, he receives a visit from two Jehovah Brothers, who confront him about his sexuality. The intervention leads to Jesse leaving home, moving to London and abandoning his hysterical mother.
But Jesse felt like an outsider in his small community long before he was outed by the Brothers. Early in the novel, a flashback illustrates the prejudice he encountered growing up as a black kid in ‘Wull-VRAMpton’. One summer, Graham, his white stepfather, takes Jesse along to the landfill site where he works. Johnny, one of the gaffers, speaks to him as if he’s ‘hard of hearing’. He scours the West Brom mug from which Jesse has drunk his tea: ‘Johnny was scrubbing his cup as if an alien’s tongue had rimmed it, his forearms and biceps flexing, a dark mark of sweat spreading on his vest, his face remaining as jolly and animated as a ventriloquist’s puppet.’ As a child, full of anger and self-loathing, Jesse attempted his own ritual of erasure: taking a Brillo pad to his skin, he ‘put the hot tap on until it ran scalding and set to scratching off the black’.
Jesse’s adolescence coincides with the rise of rap and R&B. Suddenly his skin colour is glamorous, cool – depressingly commodifiable. Fraser, during what Jesse mistakes for a hook-up, plays him Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and Jesse bemoans the fact that his mother never allowed him to listen to rap: ‘He’d been blocked all his life from hearing black men talk about the world on their own terms.’ Later, Jesse recounts an audacious performance by the So Solid Crew on Top of the Pops: their wolverine contact lenses ‘scaring the life out of the producers, who must’ve feared a riot would break out on national television’. The group’s manufactured brutality is celebrated, mimicked, by their fan base of predominantly young white men. Jesse’s co-workers at McDonald’s, ‘white boys who considered themselves to know more than he did about “the struggle”’, taunt him for his poor acquaintance with rap. But Jesse, exceptionally astute, recognises that ‘what rappers usually peddle is the idea that black men lack emotion.’ The demand to conform to a hyper-masculine stereotype is as damaging to Jesse as any dogmatic religion.
It makes sense that when he leaves for London, Jesse abandons his interest in becoming conversant with this sort of music. He swaps alpha males for female singers who are all emotion, who sing about seducing and being seduced. In the novel’s sex scenes, of which there are many, Jesse wields his looks and youth like a weapon, or a form of currency. He’s a compelling character because he considers his beauty in utilitarian terms. He’s weighed the options and thinks of his attractiveness in terms of what it can get him: it pays for his coke, it pays for his drinks, it gets him laid. It’s thrilling, subversive perhaps, to read about someone going after what they want – even if what they want is quick, ephemeral and socially taboo. Jesse isn’t vain. He doesn’t work out, or go shopping or spend time ogling himself in front of a mirror. (One client even comments on the low-quality of his profile photos: they seem unconsidered, especially when he’s so good-looking in person.) He is single-mindedly focused on having experiences, on becoming an experience machine.
Mendez is subversive in other ways too: he flirts with tragedy only to sidestep it. After a horrible encounter with a client Jesse refers to as ‘that man’, he visits a doctor who subjects him to a rectal exam and discovers ‘a two-inch-long wound … full of congealed blood’. The doctor warns Jesse that that man might have been trying to infect him with HIV. But the test comes back negative, the narrative moves on and the worst thing never happens. Perhaps, Jesse concludes, ‘that man was simply lacking in self-consciousness, and had no idea of his strength. Perhaps, as Jesse often did, he had simply forgotten to trim his nails.’ Mendez knows that what you anticipate from a narrative of this kind – including black pain – is the worst news, but things don’t always happen quite like that. There’s suffering here, but it’s subtler and more complicated than readers may expect.
If Rainbow Milk is about sex, it’s also about work – that most millennial of subjects. After Jesse is ‘disfellowshipped’ by the Brothers, he goes full-time at McDonald’s. When he runs away from Wolverhampton, he feels a stab of guilt at abandoning his co-workers. In London, he begins working at Gilbert’s, a French-style brasserie in Covent Garden, but storms out after being demoted to kitchen porter on account of his manager’s racism. In 2016, he is working in the Light Café near King’s Cross, a whitewashed former warehouse with exposed architectural features and a moneyed clientele. These passages are rendered in scrupulous detail. Here is Jesse standing before the espresso machine, a description that couldn’t be more numbingly precise:
He bangs out the blackened mess into the coffee-waste drawer and switches on the grinder (which sounds like a chainsaw in this space), rinsing out the portafilter in boiling water from the machine and using it to shake loose any grind left clinging inside the group head. He hooks the clean portafilter into the housing beneath the grinder chamber as it comes to a stop, and pulls the lever twice until it clicks, yielding the perfect amount. He compacts it with the stamp and wipes off the excess with the side of his hand, thoughtlessly transferring it to his – luckily, black – trousers where normally his apron would be, kissing his teeth and digging out a J-cloth from the nearby drawer to wet and wipe them clean. He inserts the portafilter into the group head, takes down a cup from on top of the machine, fills it to a third with boiling water and positions it, pressing the button to extract a double espresso. Within a second or two, drips of golden brown, waxy coffee start to stain the water, steadily gathering into a pour the thickness of a mouse’s tail. Within half a minute, the extraction is complete, topped with a layer of stripy crema. He takes a sip. He appreciates the slight chocolatey, then smoothly apricotty, flavour.
At one point, Jesse laments missing the Andy Warhol show at the Tate, but I suspect Mendez himself may have caught it. Like Warhol, Mendez divides his attention between boredom and titillation, leveraging the two against each other; you’ve got to work hard if you want to be turned on. By devoting the same amount of space and precision to making coffee as to administering a blow job, Mendez makes clear the arbitrary and pointless distinctions between types of work. It’s hard not to be wowed by the audacious parts of the novel – but I was just as absorbed by the bits that are deliberately dull. Then again my tolerance for digression is high. Some readers may feel they’re being forced to watch an intolerable art film which intersperses hardcore sex with scenes in which people endlessly straighten knives and forks on a dinner table in order to demonstrate that sex and economics can’t be separated.
It isn’t surprising to learn that Jesse harbours an ambition to be a writer. When he abandons his Bible in the Black Country, one of the first things he buys is James Baldwin’s Another Country – a book to which Rainbow Milk is deeply indebted. There’s also an implication that Jesse’s sex work isn’t altogether alien from the writerly life to which he aspires. Virginie Despentes makes the case for the resemblance in her polemic, King Kong Theory:
There is a genuine connection between writing and prostitution. Emancipating yourself, doing that which isn’t done, opening up your private self, laying yourself open to the judgment of others, accepting the exclusion of the group … being read by anyone and everyone, talking about things that should remain secret, being exposed in the newspapers … becoming a novelist, making easy money, inspiring fascination and revulsion in equal measure.
Transferable skills at their best. If the qualities that made Jesse an in-demand sex worker were those instilled in him by his Jehovah Brothers – kindness, understanding, a willingness to listen – then it’s also those same attributes, along with discretion, that eventually allow him to meld with the London literati.
It’s almost appropriate, or grimly realistic, that a novel that begins so passionately, with such life and recklessness, ends at a dinner party with a Tory. It’s 2016 and Jesse, now 34, has settled down with Owen, his former housemate, who has two daughters from a previous relationship. Owen is a saviour figure. He possesses everything Jesse feels he lacks: he’s middle-class, expensively educated and a published poet. Owen hangs around the kitchen with his designer stubble, reminiscing about his time at Cambridge and exuding refinement. He’s about as interesting as a sentient cardigan. He and Jesse have been together for ten years, but it’s telling that Jesse can only view Owen from the outside: he enjoys the way people hold forth about the brilliance of his partner. There’s no detail that makes the relationship feel real or singular. It’s demoralising to think that Jesse’s struggle for sexual freedom has been eclipsed by his desire for cultural capital.
There’s a lengthy picnic scene in which Jesse lists the achievements of his new friends – one has written a book for which several publishers are in a bidding war (Faber is in the lead). Another has her play staged at the Royal Court. There’s also a composer who creates ‘post-industrial soundscapes incorporating dub, synth, experimental and gospel sounds’. I was left wondering why Jesse now cares so much about what his friends do for money, but perhaps it’s all prostitution of another sort. On the way to Owen’s publisher’s house in Suffolk, Owen chooses the music – mainly classical. At dinner, Jesse is introduced to a Brexiteer, Lord Groombridge, whom he used to fuck for money. What follows is the sort of social satire that’s now so ubiquitous in novels, and so abysmally toothless, that it’s almost like buying into a con to acknowledge it (Groombridge’s wife’s ‘stilettos are as red as her lips’). Jesse considers revealing Groombridge’s dirty secret, ‘but feels, for the sake of the evening, that he’ll have to keep his mouth shut’. If you were feeling cynical, you could argue that Jesse has traded one enclosed, limited world for another. He sits in ‘a medieval throne chair’ opposite Groombridge, who drones on about ‘the inner machinations of the House of Lords post-referendum’. The starters are laid out: platters of ‘courgette salad with pomegranate, Lebanese tomatoes, radish, cucumber, coriander, molasses, chilli and za’atar, and warm hunks of homemade baguette’. To drink, Jesse chooses the 2012 Hermitage Blanc: ‘I’ve never tried a white Côtes du Rhône.’ Lord Groombridge’s wife comments that the food looks delicious. ‘It really does,’ Jesse replies.