Miah Jeffra takes on Corruption in American Gospel

Miah Jeffra’s American Gospel (Black Lawrence Press, $ 26.95) questions the idea of the American dream in a braided novel that weaves together how race, sexuality, gender, and class are affected when a developer begins displacing a neighborhood in a bid to make an amusement park. The novel is told in three voices, Peter Cryer, a queer mixed-race teenager navigating love and desire; Ruth Anne, his Irish Appalachian mother living in fear of domestic abuse by her estranged partner; and Thomas, a teacher and brother at the private Catholic school where Peter attends on scholarship. The three perspectives reveal an America struggling to find itself in the wake of commercialism, addiction, and toxicity. In each case, powerlessness leads to violence; this overarching theme of Gospel spans gender, sexuality, race, and class, as nearly every character or institution is affected by conditions created by white-collar corruption.

Baltimore’s old American charm, the brick and cobblestone neighborhoods gesturing back to Colonial America, serve as the foundation for Jeffra’s tale of family and civic discord, with Thomas and Ruth acting as accelerants both in and against Peter’s best interests. At school, Thomas cannot connect to Peter, who feels more and more singled out by his peers slinging abuses at him; plus, Thomas has his own issues haunting him, the recent death of his mother. At home, Ruth struggles to guide Peter largely because of her own trauma and coping mechanisms. Peter doesn’t spend much time at home and finds himself at Baltimore’s gay bars looking for older men to sweep him off his feet for the night, coping by escaping his body in the arms of another. 

It is through the school teacher’s eyes,  Brother Thomas, that the novel’s macro themes are filtered; Baltimore’s racist and corrupt past is challenged. Thomas, while juggling new responsibilities his mother’s death brings, must confront the city about the development threatening the neighborhood; families and communities have suddenly found themselves without a home or a voice. An amusement park representing the city, and its history, has begun to replace existing homes and city blocks, a kind of white cis-het corporate consumer fantasy replica of Baltimore, pandering $15 hot dogs and $15 beers to tourists in town for the weekend. Thomas and another of his orders become civic detectives, uncovering the corrupt city practices used to expedite the park’s construction. Thomas also finds himself in a relationship with Mirabelle, an early-stage refugee from the Highlandtown amusement dystopia, when he allows her to live in his mother’s house gratis. This act of generosity enlivens Thomas to act, and his order, at first, serves as a study of organizational, civic allyship and the people behind it, and then in the riot later, as a violent tableau when the riot finds the brothers at school, watching from above, the city aflame before them.

For Peter, the city’s racism and homophobia are daily challenges, not abstractions.

Largely unconcerned about the immediacy of the looming amusement park construction, Peter simply wants to graduate and find a love connection on the way. Like so many queer BIPOC students in American schools, Peter suffers to see himself in the white, heterosexual world of his classmates, reminding readers that being out is both a privilege and an oppression as his identity makes him a target for bullying among his peers. For Peter, the city’s racism and homophobia are daily challenges, not abstractions. When Peter stands up for himself, he is punished doubly. He is expected to act straight and proper to serve as a model for the “scholarship kids” who “look up to him.” 

American Gospel illustrates the current inequities and mental health dangers for queer kids of color.

Over the arc of the novel, Peter and Jude develop a sexually tense friendship which adds to the pressure Peter feels at school and home. Is Jude into me or not? becomes Peter’s dominant early conflict. Through Peter, American Gospel is a coming-of-age story where the queer character’s identity is not the conflict but rather adjacent to the conflict. His mother assumes his sexuality for most of the novel, and it isn’t until later, when Peter’s temper gets the best of him, that he comes out to his mother in anger and frustration, a prelude of violence to come. While Ruth is more of an anti-mother, a study of a ghost of a mother, perhaps, as Joby’s death and her own PTSD upend her, she is not Peter’s biggest problem. Peter’s angry; Peter’s under immense pressure, and Peter’s life lacks adults who empathize and see Peter for who he is. At school, Peter is alone. At home, he’s alone. He only finds companionship in queer spaces, and his falling in love with Jude, who may or may not be interested in him, shows how much Peter needs companionship. In this manner, American Gospel illustrates the current inequities and mental health dangers for queer kids of color. Because he lacks community and an adult he can talk to, despite attending an elite school, these absences take a toll on his well-being, a kind of corrosive white noise made up of intrusive thoughts about fitting in and staying the course, and whiteness itself, the Catholic cis-het framework inherently hostile and cold. One of the novel’s more haunting moments is when Peter, after escaping the riot in the school grotto, swings at a statue of Mary out of anger, in synchronicity with the demonstration that tears the city apart. When love finally does discover Peter, it is with Max, an art student who shows Peter a fresh side to the city and the warmth and humanity Peter has been seeking. Max and Peter are a joyful, happy couple, free of drama.

Ruth, Peter’s mother, wanders the Baltimore landscape in fear, mainly but also drunk, as she seeks a reprieve and serenity from Isaac. Isaac is her most recently estranged partner who lurks in the novel’s corners, appearing as a shadow, threat, and past trauma. Isaac dominates, so fixed and present in Ruth’s mind, that Ruth’s chapters sometimes feel like a fever dream, an alcoholic twilight. Through Ruth’s eyes, we understand the death of her oldest, Joby, which haunts them. Like all the characters in the novel, her powerlessness also forces her hand, murdering Isaac when she mistakes a flower Peter purchased for Jude for an anonymous calling card left by her ex. Her paranoia, past trauma, and her anxiety pull her towards violence, towards the serenity of justice by her own hand. Of the three main characters, only Ruth plans acts of violence; it is every bit as much of a reaction to stress and frustration as others’. However, Ruth’s response unfolds over time, and with scheming and much hand-wringing. She’s a sad portrait of a parent who doesn’t understand their child, not a lack of want, but of ability. She is terrified and ends up ultimately alone, arrested, prosecuted, and serving time.

Feelings of powerlessness don’t always equate to helplessness, a lesson each character grapples with in Jeffra’s elegy for America.

Miah Jeffra’s American Gospel illustrates the powerlessness of people in the face of faceless social-political power. This power is well represented by the amusement park and the developer, MacAlister, who only appears a few times in the novel and always as a foil to Thomas, a kind of parallel to Ruth’s Isaac. MacAlister, the white corporate developer hiding behind his wealth, is depicted as a traditional, uptight male, likely a Republican. He justifies his choices while hiding in a bubble of class and privilege. He and his family escape violence from the protest gone “haywire” and eventually get their amusement park started in earnest, erasing old Baltimore with the help of old-fashioned behind-closed-doors exchanges of power. Jeffra reminds us that power doesn’t respect people; power only respects power, and nothing more.  Yet, fighting back is necessary, even if it is reactionary and triggered by fear. Feelings of powerlessness don’t always equate to helplessness, a lesson each character grapples with in Jeffra’s elegy for America. In the end, Jeffra offers readers an uneasy hope that queer kids can find love, and so can old dusty priests; even the tragic mother finds her own kind of justice and serenity. Buoyed by Jeffra’s gritty and lyrical prose, American Gospel looks America in the eyes and finds it wanting, the American Dream available only to the wealthy and corrupt, short-shifting ordinary folks who just want their slice of apple pie.