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.
Rainbow Milk is a bold and raw novel, and although some edges still need sanding down it is memorable and affecting. There is one stretch in the middle where the prose is fine, fluid and luminous; in it Jesse enjoys his first Christmas lunch, with a flatmate he barely knows, and he finally seems to stop running away from himself. Here both Jesse and Mendez’s sinews seem to relax and you can see how, once the sexualised power-play has diminished, there can be a real quiet intimacy between men, and some of the pain Jesse has experienced can be truly communicated and, perhaps, even healed.
Rainbow Milk is an important and ambitious book. From the Windrush generation through the Aids crisis, to what it means to be a black, gay writer in Britain today, Mendez stitches blackness, disability and illness, queerness and class deep into the fabric of the narrative.
The most successful areas of this immersive semi-autobiographical story are where it explores the intersection between Jesse’s performance of sex and his performance of blackness. As with many of Rainbow Milk’s youthful characters, his emotional intelligence is stunted, and Mendez shows how it’s possible to find a route to self-knowledge through an excited interrogation of song lyrics. The downward slide of unprotected sex and hedonism, which results in physical injuries, leads Jesse to have an epiphany of sorts: “He had to switch off his dick and switch on his brain if he was going to survive in this world.” Through a friendship with poetry-loving Owen he begins to wean himself off the addiction to badass bacchanalian excess that exploded following years of suppression.
These two stories build into a novel of huge power and emotional impact, written in language that is sharp, distinctive and often beautiful. 2020 has been a year of superb debuts and Rainbow Milk is among the best.
Rainbow Milk is not for the faint-hearted. But it is more real and generous than most contemporary novels, intoxicating in its jeopardy and lust. And while it is raw and unfiltered — and occasionally overstuffed — Mendez’s writing also bears the imprint of much British realist literature about queer life. You can see here the echoes of his partner, Alan Hollinghurst, in the wickedly funny social observation (“I adored the use of Janacek’s The Madonna of Frydek” is one snatch of literary repartee), the long, emotional reflections on music and literature, and — naturally — the graphic sex. It actually makes The Line of Beauty look like The Archers. I learnt what “gargling” is.
Rainbow Milk (Dialogue Books RRP£14.99, April) by Paul Mendez charts three generations of a Jamaican family from their arrival in Britain in the 1950s to present-day Jesse, a conflicted gay sex worker roaming London. It’s eye-poppingly frank, urgent and fresh.