Ashton Robinson, the protagonist of Trey Ellis’s third and most recent novel, embodies the qualities found in what might be called the Ellis Hero: he’s intense, slightly nerdy, and luuuvs the ladies. Like earlier Ellis creations Austin McMillan (Home Repairs) and Dewayne Wellington (Platitudes), Robinson is a brainy, self-centered neurotic whose mind tends to “wander back to the neighborhood of sex; it always does.” Like the heroes of novels by Paul Beatty and Christopher John Farley, the star of Right Here, Right Now is part of a new breed of black fictional protagonists, all of whom follow a trail blazed by Wellington and McMillan. Far from those sociological specimens known as boyz in the hood, these ambitious but flawed young men are middle-class, multilingual globe-trotters who pursue love wherever it leads them, even across continents and time zones.
Six foot six, handsome, and blessed with a golden tongue, Robinson is an infomercial mogul turned avatar of spiritual uplift. The story of his rise and fade-out is told in the form of an “edited transcript of hundreds and hundreds of hours of his compulsively recorded audio diary.” Robinson, 34, has amassed a considerable fortune from his lectures, corporate consultations, and mail-order videocassette series. But he’s lonely despite his millions and a number of short-lived, soulless assignations. To hear Ashton tell it, if you’ve boinked one statuesque German game-show hostess, you’ve boinked them all. One gets the feeling he’s endured multiple screenings of Mahogany, that campy Diana Ross flick in which Billy Dee Williams reminds her that success is nothing without someone to share it with. Robinson has become a poor little rich boy who sulks at night beside his pool, murmuring his sullen soliloquies into a microcassette recorder that he keeps by his side.
Growing tired of his lucrative con game and increasingly cynical toward the desperate dupes whose fervent offerings pay for his lavish estate, Robinson experiences a change of heart when he overindulges in a blend of marijuana and expired cough syrup. While high as the gates surrounding his home— and perhaps hallucinating as well— Robinson makes love to a Brazilian midget, but only after the little guy miraculously shape-shifts into Sonia Braga’s sensuous twin. This erotic encounter introduces our erstwhile Prince of Positive Thinking to the wonders of axe (aaa-shay), a Portuguese term imported from Africa “that roughly translates as ‘spirit’ or ‘power.’ ”
Emboldened by his access to axe, which he believes manifests itself as a glow that gives him the power to win friends, wow women, and influence others’ thoughts, Robinson shuts down his enterprise. He repairs to his reliable mansion, into which he invites 12 disciples to join him in an experiment in higher living. Robinson pores over ancient texts and New Age volumes, all the while pondering his place in the spiritual pantheon. He doesn’t expect to be as successful as Buddha or Jesus, “but it would be nice if ‘Axeism’ would one day be as big as, I don’t know, maybe the Mormons.”
It would be easy to dismiss Robinson’s accumulated insight if it weren’t for the fact that, like all such sermonettes, it contains a grain of truth. Early in his transformation he observes, “Every one of us in the West has a chronic cold of the soul, yet we ignore it, let it persistently degrade us, till we forget what it ever meant to be well.” Sounds reasonable enough, but while some purveyors of wisdom might prescribe chicken soup for an ailing soul, Robinson suggests a more intriguing solution. Tantric sex is the key to enlightenment, he tells his curious band of followers shortly after they move in with him. Preferring to teach by example, he engages in regular sex with the females among the group. The other men are only allowed to participate vicariously by watching videotapes of Robinson’s adventures. While Robinson has sex, avoids his followers’ families, and heads toward a fateful showdown with a camera crew from 60 Minutes, Ellis pokes fun at America’s obsession with personal improvement. Self-actualizers, Scientologists, and pseudo-psychics are among the many players dissected by Ellis’s scalpel-like pen. Although his exposure of La-La land lunacy is not as resonant— or as funny— as his deflations of black middle-class pretentiousness, Ellis again proves himself a deft and fearless farceur. Right Here, Right Now shows that Ellis can still slash with a swift, savage wit, when the spirit moves him.