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Coming of Age in 1980s New York


The book jacket of Rasheed Newson’s extraordinary debut, “My Government Means to Kill Me,” features the title in big, pink, all-caps type, followed by the words “A NOVEL” in the same large font. This is rare. Such labels — “a novel,” “poems,” “a memoir” — are usually sneaked in as surreptitiously as the words “serving suggestion” on the front of a cereal box, and until now, they’ve struck me as equally unnecessary. Beholding a box of frosted flakes, we might confidently project the absence of milk, berries and tigers within; standing in the fiction aisle, we make similar assumptions about the rectangles on the shelves. Once in a while, though, a peculiar book — in this case, a fictional annotated memoir — comes along and scrambles our categories.

The purported author of this annotated memoir is Earl Singleton III, a.k.a. “Trey,” a gay Black teenager who has run away from a wealthy home in Indiana. The year is 1985. The destination is New York City, where the AIDS epidemic is rampant. Trey has turned his back on a trust fund in order to make his own way, and the unsolved disappearance of his brother Martin lurks in the background of his self-imposed exile.

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Trey beelines from the bus station to the Chelsea Hotel, having read about it in Rolling Stone. His subsequent tribulations evoke the Dickensian urchin, but Trey’s childhood was sheltered and preppy. He ruefully lists the practical skills he lacked upon arrival: “a working knowledge of how to operate a laundry machine; experience writing checks and balancing a checkbook; familiarity with padlocks and deadbolts; the rudimentary cooking skills to fix a grilled cheese sandwich without setting off a smoke detector; and the ability to sense when I was being hustled.”

In the ensuing two years here chronicled, Trey encounters hustlers aplenty. False friends and forgotten gurus, bigoted hypocrites and “rough trade” rent boys — Trey caroms through a panoply of New York City cynics and saints. Foremost among these hustlers is his roommate, Gregory, a Haitian hunk who makes rent by temping (as a typist) and topping (white closet cases who pay for his discretion). Street-smart Gregory adopts Trey like a little brother, but Trey declines to follow Gregory into sex work. Instead, he embarks on an odyssey of New York odd jobs. After breaking his arm as a Chinatown bike courier, he moves on to cutting grass at a cemetery in Queens. Before long, he’s working the information desk at the Museum of Modern Art, organizing rent strikes against slumlords and volunteering at an underground AIDS hospice. This is a story of coming-of-age, of sexual and political awakening, of life lessons learned at the school of hard knocks.

Are you with me, or are you still wondering, “What the heck is an annotated memoir?” The narrative is written in Trey’s voice, irrepressible and emo, but the copious footnotes are not. What was the Mattachine Society? Did Ed Koch and Countee Cullen get it on with guys? What does “chicken hawk” mean? I was still puzzling over who had so thoroughly annotated Trey’s diary when the celebrity cameos kicked in and kept coming: Trey tangles with historical figures like the conservative icons Fred Trump and William F. Buckley Jr. and the legendary activists Larry Kramer and Dorothy Cotton. The civil rights leader Bayard Rustin plays a central role, radicalizing Trey in the break room of the Mt. Morris Baths, a real-life cruising ground in Harlem that closed in 2003.

A footnote informs us that there is no evidence that Rustin ever visited the Mt. Morris Baths, but that needn’t trouble us, because — remember — this is “A NOVEL.” It is not a historical text, nor is it a self-help book, despite its instructive chapter headings: “To Change the World, Have a Selfish Goal,” “Sometimes It’s Not About You.” Trey has a habit of closing these chapters with further tidbits of his hard-won wisdom: “a lie can be the spark that leads to virtue”; “positioned correctly, pawns can checkmate kings.”

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Fortunately, Trey’s also a lively narrator, and he folds these adages neatly into his adventures. The footnotes distract from the story at times, but never derail it, because the story is consistently engrossing. Newson, a seasoned TV writer, has a knack for pacing. The headline appeal of “My Government Means to Kill Me” is self-evident: It shines a vivid light onto underappreciated aspects of our history. However, the book’s greatest charm lies in the sensitivity and subtlety of its narrative. Trey’s relationships with Gregory, Rustin and the rest of the diverse cast are authentically dynamic and nuanced. His cohort of strong-willed AIDS activists are not glorified in sepia; rather, they are plagued by internecine squabbles even as they launch a movement that shifts the course of the nation. Throughout, Trey never loses his sense of humor, and one can’t help rooting for him as he matures with each chapter.

Fiction can bring history to life in a way that textbooks cannot — think “Wolf Hall” or “The Jungle.” “My Government Means to Kill Me,” a nostalgic picaresque punctuated by aphorism, reminds me more of “Forrest Gump.” That film seemed like an instant classic upon its release, but it’s aged poorly, particularly its depictions of disability. Could Newson’s impressive debut suffer a similar fate? Textbooks are revised every few years, whereas novels and films are not. I’ll speak only for the present: This book could be taught in schools.

Daniel Nieh’s most recent novel is “Take No Names.”

MY GOVERNMENT MEANS TO KILL ME, by Rasheed Newson | 276 pp. | Flatiron Books | $27.99

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