‘Shine’ by Donnelle McGee
Author: L. Michael Gipson
March 26, 2013
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and all the characters in Donnelle McGee’s debut poetic prose novel seem infused with the utmost desperation. Capturing a bleak landscape of folks barely hanging on by their fingernails, McGee introduces us to a neo-realistic world of commercial sex workers, poor folks with AIDS, crooked cops, families struggling to survive abandonment and violence that is stark and emotionally raw. While its subjects and themes are sensationalistic, the treatment of his character’s lives is anything but in McGee’s assured and loving hands. Compassionate, considered, and knowing, the author uses a wide array of literary techniques to reveal the interiors and the fairly direct story of a tragedy whose foreboding conclusion appears inevitable almost from the start.
Using a non-linear, multiple first person point-of-view literary approach that is a pastiche of poetry, prose, and lyric, the work stops just short of a post-modern novel, lacking any real irony or humor and relying heavily on fragmented poetic prose to tell the dramatic story of a lost life. The life in question is one of a 23 year-old sex worker named Braydon “Shine” Phillips who, despite his own vaguely hopeful ambitions, finds himself surrounded by teenage prostitutes, adult pimps and cops doubling as johns in a secret world that he has had one foot in and one foot out of for five years. The other foot is steeped in a traditional, if broken life of irreversibly damaged parents, interracial love with his upwardly mobile girlfriend, and a murdered “good boy” brother who the protagonist is still mourning. Despite the fullness of scope presented of Bray’s two distinctive lives, the boy’s life is a minimal and easily discarded one and, on the surface, McGee’s approach to it is as minimalist as the life in question.
That is not to say McGee short shifts his protagonist, quite the contrary. In a very slim volume with the most economic of language, we learn oceanic depths about young Braydon from all who love him, some that merely know (and sometimes hate) him, and from the lad himself in poetry, interior and exterior dialogues rendered in succinct prose. In doing so, we get a layered, highly textured understanding of the man, if at times an overly sentimental handling of him and the equally tragic betters in his life. The multiple perspectives deliver such an intimacy and immediacy for the reader regarding this young man’s life that it is hard not to be drawn into his experience, even if what you’re being brought into is a brutal world described in matter-of-fact, if occasionally melancholic, terms.
Even on the right side of his street it is still the wrong side when it comes to disappearing family and the artichoke that is his girl; there are no saviors in Bray’s world. No heroes or Captain-Save-A-Hoes in this downbeat land. And, no one in McGee’s tale manages to experience its tar-like residue unscathed, even those whose relationship to McGee’s dark streets only sticks to them through their irresistible draw to its allure for money, adventure, attention, loneliness and sexual confusion or all of the above. As McGee reveals over time, Braydon’s motivations for returning again and again to the secret life he knows can be his undoing, and are as complicated as the boy himself, as are the finely drawn people sharing the elegy of his life. Bray’s inability to answer the call of his own survival instincts, to reject his own addictive exploration of this world and his struggle to understand his own sexuality are ultimately an Achilles heel revealed early in the book, but not so soon that readers won’t be compelled to turn the page.
A desire to understand what exactly happened to the struggling Braydon in greater detail is McGee’s hook. We are made to care about “Shine” because it’s clear to everyone but Braydon that he is loved and that there is something worth loving and salvaging here. While those hopes take a beating, old-fashioned storytelling suspense, dramatic tension, and the reader’s voyeuristic nosiness will keep you turning pages even through some of the more mawkish moments largely courtesy of Shine’s parents.
As a debut work, Shine has much to recommend it, but perhaps nothing more than Donnelle McGee’s ability to take the well-worn subjects of disintegrating urban families and sex worker lives and breathe both love and frankness into them with an editor’s eye and a poet’s pen. Side-stepping the poverty porn prose trap, McGee asks us to see his subjects, to consider them as flesh and blood undercover aspirants, and to confront the fact that the spent bodies spiraling down this vast sinkhole is America too, one robbing the hopes of far too many would-be dreamers much, much too soon.
By Donnelle McGee
Sibling Rivalry Press
Paperback, 9781937420192, 98 pp.
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