Cypher Avenue Rating: 3 of 5      

PictureI don’t really know where to begin with my thoughts on this debut novel, “Sons” by Alphonso Morgan. It is a muddled, slow-moving, coming of age story that simultaneously makes you aroused, nauseated and bored.

Set in Brooklyn in the 1990’s, the novel follows the meeting and growing relationship between young black gay Americans, Aaron and Sha, both struggling with their sexuality. Predictably, one is the submissive type and the other is the aggressive. One is inexperienced and the other has been around the block. One is the innocent while the other is a drug dealing thug.

It’s not every day that you see Gay fiction that not only features masculine non-stereotypical characters of color but also incorporates Hip Hop culture into the mix. So reading the first 50 or so pages of “Sons” was extremely refreshing in many ways. Compared to many other Gay black writers I’ve read, Morgan seems to want us to take him seriously as an author choosing not to resort to pornography in his prose. At the same time, however, some of his scenes still come off very sensual and erotic without the need for explicit description.

This is where things got really weird and uncomfortable for me. The characters Sha and Aaron are 21 and 16 years old, respectively. If you’re keeping up, that means there’s some underage action going on here. Admittedly, specific sexual acts like intercourse are only implied and rarely mentioned in the book but the thought of it hovers in the mind throughout.

I’m fully aware that the notion of young inner city teenagers having sex and/or engaging in relationships with adult men is very much a reality, but the casualness of it in this book is striking. I was hard pressed to find even a single mention or examination of the disturbing aspect to this. There’s even a 12-page-scene in which a drag queen physically restrains a child and grills him on whether or not he’s a top or bottom. The drag queen goes on to causally reveal she knows gay sexually active 11 & 12 year olds. Then there’s an entire flashback chapter that details Sha’s own first underage experiences with a much older man. Admittedly, the author Alphonso Morgan doesn’t actually encourage underage sex . Quite the contrary, the brutally tragic ending to this novel makes that very clear.Before you now totally write this book off as a miss, I have to admit that in many sections the attempt is still very impressive. This seemed to be something Morgan needed to get off his chest so he could write something great in the future. When his writing is good, it’s very good, with authentic dialogue and subtleties. However, when it’s bad, it’s really bad, showing that he still has much to learn.

The flaws with “Sons” were either the result of bad writing or bad editing. At only 228 pages the book was an exhaustive chore to finish. Morgan’s overreaching and often confusing prose caused me to re-read many sections or just skip them entirely. Also, to say that there was not much of a story in “Sons” is being nice. Nothing really “happens” until after the 150 page mark. To be honest, there are about 100 pages that could have easily have been deleted from the original manuscript entirely without confusing the reader at all.

The characters are all either one-dimensional or they behave in ways that seemingly lack any kind of motivation. For example, the character Sha is a gay sociopath but it’s never explained exactly how or why he became one in the first place. The character Aaron is so conflicted about his sexuality that he seriously considers suicide (throughout 30 pages of drawn-out prose), but that is never explained either given that he’s neither interested in women, religious or particularly close to his family at all.

It was frustrating to read because the potential fruits of good complex characters were all there to ripen. I wanted to get to know these people but Morgan chose to instead fill his pages with long complicated descriptions about how beautiful and tough New York City Burroughs can be. What could have been a character rich tale inspired by The Wire seen through a gay lens just comes off dull and small in scope.

The last 60 pages flow much more quickly but ironically, they feel almost too rushed. In that span, Morgan gives us at least FIVE MAJOR unbelievably coincidental instances that make it seem as if New York City is only filled with about 10 places and people.

Having said all that, I’d still recommend this book which is available on Amazon. The reason why some of the uncomfortable intimate underage scenes work is that Morgan writes them in a way where you almost put yourself in the shoes of the characters. If you also experienced gay sex with older men at a young age, you may be able to relate to the characters more than I did. I should also add that Morgan did force me to think back to my own youth and wonder how much different my life would have been had I made different decisions or lived in a different surrounding as a young black gay male. It’s one thing to tell a story but it’s something else entirely to make the reader look and examine themselves internally in the process.

– Nick D