Like the television show Sex and the City, Victor LaValle’s well-crafted, subtle stories show the sexual life of inhabitants in a particular time and place, in this case Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx in the 1990s. But unlike Sex and the City, these stories are not about the fantasy life of young white women whom the networks believe we will all identify with. No, in Slapboxing With Jesus, Lavalle depicts the sexual lives of black teens who buy a first sexual encounter on the streets, who have babies, who eke out a living as prostitutes, or who discover homosexual love. For the white characters from Sex and the City, sex is an adventure in a city that adores them, but for the young black characters in LaValle’s book, sex is a struggle in a city that is indifferent.
LaValle offers the first five stories as a cross-section of New York-a series called “The Autobiography of New York Today.” In “Slave,” Rob, a child prostitute, stands on the corner in front of the Disney store in Times Square, playing his part in a system of brutality and loneliness. “Slave” begins with these words: “Rob eats pussy like a champ.” This is not so much a shock as it is a tease. “He’s on awful knees that should have been turned in months ago; they are now numb. He should be getting ready for school; tenth grade is usually the age of football teams and parttime work. She says- Don’t stop, through those teeth so white Rob was sure they were caps when he met her in front of the Disney store in Times Square.” The story is filtered through Rob’s consciousness; he watches as the words he hears coalesce into a harsh description of life in the urban jungle.
For the characters in LaValle’s world, the city is a prison that limits goals and stunts growth. The city itself becomes a character, one that never stops making its presence known-and one that turns its concrete back on its inhabitants. “When you’re from the Bronx,” the narrator of “Ghost Story” says, “the place isn’t standing on its back, the whole borough lies on its side. And when the wind goes through there, you can’t kid yourself, there are voices.”
Sometimes LaValle’s characters try to escape the pull of the city’s downward spiral, but they are eventually drawn back. In “Trinidad,” 10-year-old Anthony’s mother sends him away from Flushing to Trinidad as “a punishment, as though I were banished.” He finds liberation in Trinidad, though not for long: “In Trinidad I was another boy, not so quick to be venal and petty. I cared some. But when my mother arrived the reality that I would have to return was exhausting, made me panic.” When Anthony falls in love with a young playmate, Malik (“My mother walked in on us rubbing each other on my tenth birthday”), his mother tells him, “I want you to promise me that you won’t be Malik’s friend anymore….I told her, It’s nothing….Malik is just a faggot anyway.” Like all of the stories in this volume, this one ends with an understated slap.
LaValle often describes the confusion of the city by way of teens’ developing sexuality. In “Class Trip,” the city threatens a young boy’s sexual identity at the moment of sexual initiation. Three 10th-graders venture out from Queens to Manhattan to visit a prostitute: “Hookers, Willy said…. We are hopping on that train, heading out to Manhattan and everybody here is getting his dick sucked. No arguments.” The boys finally meet a prostitute who will take schoolboys on, but when Anthony’s turn comes, she robs him. “Why me?… I don’t like your face, she said. You just don’t look good.” This whore’s put-down turns out to be much more frightening than being robbed. Later, Anthony finds his girlfriend and asks her: “Am I ugly?… You? she put her face against my neck. She tried to tickle me but neither of us was laughing. On the street, traffic was still a thriving business; the sky was purple and lost.” LaValle’s urban world is a tough one, and not least because it forces his characters to deal with messy, disturbing emotions and contradictions.
LaValle, like James Joyce, whom he quotes, uses a simple dash instead of quotation marks to indicate who is speaking, bringing the reader simultaneously within the characters’ inner world and their external reality. While this technique fuses the internal thoughts of his characters with their dialogue in surprising ways, the reader is sometimes confused as to who is speaking. Nevertheless, LaValle’s work is first-rate and it reminds us that by accepting our ugliness, our imperfections, we have a chance to become beautiful. “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” James Baldwin wrote. LaValle does not mean for us to invite our own destruction. No, he means for us to survive.