Intersections of Privilege

Bernardine Evaristo, Mr. Loverman (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2013); 307 pages; ISBN 978-0241145784 (paperback).

• February 2015

The archetype of the Lothario-suave Caribbean man is by no means new in literature, or in popular culture, for that matter—for example, the young Jamaican man who reawakens passion in the lovelorn American woman in How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996), the Dominican womanizer Yunior, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), or the Pan-Caribbean group of men going to dances to pick up “birds” in The Lonely Londoners (1956). The representation of this smooth-talking, sly-smiling, sexually potent, and sensual man whose sparkle and wit turns heads and flushes cheeks is usually youthful and strapping. There are few tales about aging “saga boys.” Even rarer are stories about such men whose smiles and words make other men’s cheeks flame. Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman delves into such rarified territory through Antiguan-turned-British-gent Barrington Jedidiah Walker and his uproariously mischievous first-person narration.

Barry wastes no time in identifying whom he loves—Morris, his long-suffering partner—but Barry is recalcitrant about labeling himself a “pooftah” (137). In fact, Barry seems to be in denial of many things about himself—his sexual orientation, his culpability for the strain in all his relationships, and his vices. Most of this denial stems from an antiquated patriarchal mindset prevalent in the fifties when Barry first assumed his heterosexual masculine outer-persona. And it is Barry’s charm and wit that, at first, pulls you in and convinces you that his self-construction might be exaggerated but fairly true. He is as intelligent as he claims to be, as suave. However, as other voices filter through his narration, we realize just how unreliable Barry’s narrative actually is.The most discordant voice is that of Carmel, Barry’s equally long-suffering wife. At first, Carmel’s free-flowing and unpunctuated poetic prose is a jarring departure from Barry’s more standardized syntax. Not only do the thoughts and sentences break on you like waves, but Carmel interrupts the chronological flow of Barry’s prattle. However, the contrast between Barry’s organized narration and Carmel’s flowing thoughts serve to highlight how Barry constructs his public persona. And like waves washing against a seawall, Carmel’s narration slowly deconstructs Barry’s portrayal of himself and others. Every time Carmel’s voice interjects, revealing her three-dimensional character, we see discrepancies between Barry’s explanation of his actions and what he actually does. As Barry’s narrative destabilizes, more voices begin to hijack his personal story to reveal truths about themselves that the old Lothario is reluctant to admit.

As Barry’s narrative is increasingly revealed as unreliable, the novel’s themes take on a refreshing complexity. Rather than present a dichotomy of victimized homosexuality and oppressive Caribbean (diaspora) society, Evaristo’s novel explores the intersections between various types of privilege. While Barry may have married Carmel out of the fear of discovery, his ability to use his wife as a shield while demonizing her and emotionally abusing her highlights male privilege. Barry wants to maintain this privilege in his relationship with Morris, which is built on an outdated chauvinism at odds with the novel’s setting in 2010. Thus, the church cronies Merty, Drusilla, Asseleitha, and Candaisy’s (stereo)typical Caribbean reaction to homosexuality as the worst sin in the history of sins is tempered by Barry’s misogyny. Carmel’s bitterness has less to do with Barry’s sexual orientation than with his unfaithfulness and selfishness, both of which stem from his male privilege.

In fact, it is Barry’s own homophobia that is most disturbing and revealing. Barry’s resistance to being labeled a “pooftah” outlives the threat of physical violence and discrimination of his younger days and is a function of his constructed maleness. For Barry, being in love with and sexually attracted to another man is not the issue, but allowing oneself to be vulnerable and open, which for Barry is nonmasculine, is. What Barry fears is that the “pooftah” undermines the male/female binary. This fear is articulated when Carmel labels Barry an antiman (289). To accept open gayness or a less rigid representation of masculinity as normal means that Barry would have to accept how his misogyny and patriarchy have hurt his wife and daughters, Donna and Maxine. Once Barry can accept his responsibility for Carmel’s bitterness, Donna’s loneliness, and Maxine’s flightiness, then the family might actually be able to heal. And this need for honesty and healing are the most indelible messages of the novel.

Adding to the overall pleasure of reading the novel are Evaristo’s nods to earlier texts that engage the Caribbean lover man trope. Barry and Morris both recall and reshape the narrative of Moses and Galahad from Lonely Londoners. On the other hand, Carmel getting her “groove” back when she flees to Antigua reinterprets How Stella Got Her Groove Back and troubles the “rent-a-dread” trope. Perhaps the most fascinating intertextual conversation takes place between the title and the novel itself. The title references Shabba Ranks’s “Mr. Loverman,” a song that exemplifies the hyper-sexualized masculinity of the Caribbean man and calls to mind a genre rife with homophobic content. All these allusions and references help to underscore Barry’s fear of being an antiman.

The only minor disappointment in the novel is Carmel’s growing fevered fundamentalism. At times, Carmel’s overzealous religious reasoning seems flat and underdeveloped, especially since it is the main explanation offered for her naiveté in the face of Barry’s predilections as well as her main source of comfort as she lingers on in a loveless marriage. At best, her fervent Christianity, similar to the fire-and-brimstone virulence of the church cronies, illustrates how religious-sanctioned prejudice and discrimination can hinder people from engaging in meaningful dialogue. However, as vital as religion is to the unfolding of Carmel’s character, it feels underexplored. As a result, Carmel seems to flatten near the end of the novel. Her growth seems stunted, ever so slightly, because she cannot seem to escape her bitterness and uses a fundamentalist Christianity to justify her anger and pain. Overall, this is a minor flaw in an otherwise engaging and rich work. Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman is sure to spark much-needed conversations about sexuality, masculinity, and equality in the Caribbean and the wider African diaspora.

 

Dr. Kela Nnarka Francis is a graduate of Howard University. Her research interests include African diaspora literature and African ritual practices as they manifest in African diaspora secular cultural productions, with an emphasis on Carnival. Her latest article was published in CLA Journal (2014). She currently resides in Trinidad and is working on a manuscript about Trinidad Carnival.