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Book review: Gentleman Jigger

A sensual subversive from the Harlem Renaissance

'FEARLESS PIONEER.' Richard Bruce Nugent's first novel is finally published.

Mention the 1920s’ explosion of African-American art and literature known as the Harlem Renaissance and figures like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston come quickly to mind. The name Richard Bruce Nugent, novelist and good friend to both these greats, may not ring so familiar — but that’s quickly changing. Nugent featured prominently in the 2004 film Brother to Brother. Now his first novel is finally in print. Unpublished until this year Gentleman Jigger augments Nugent’s short story, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade.”

Nugent continues to blow the cover off historical Harlem’s arty gay scene, breaking new ground 80 years after the circumspect innuendos of Hughes, Wally Thurman and others. Arnold Rampersad says it succinctly in his forward to the book: “Almost three decades before James Baldwin there was Bruce Nugent… fearless pioneer.”

Editor Thomas Wirth’s introduction sets the stage for a novel that closely matches Nugent’s life in many ways, while diverging in others. What’s clear is that the book is a genuine insider account, faithful to the hothouse creative bloom and subversive sensuality of Harlem in those heady days.

The novel opens with a satirical view of the complex hierarchy of well-to-do “coloured” families in Nugent’s hometown, Washington DC. Paleness was recognized as the primary virtue among the city’s elite dark clans. Nugent probes their hypocrisies with a razor-sharp edge. The protagonist, Stuartt, has sprung from the union of a “brown and handsome” dad and a mother whose mere “13 drops of Negro” gave her blood “the necessary number of poly-morphonuclearlucocites to assure the anaemic and inbred pallor of true aristocracy.”

I have to stifle the urge to quote paragraphs of Nugent’s wonderfully tart prose. Colour obsession rules this snobby demimonde. Patriarchs fret about the infiltration of “slightly sepia relations” or an “Indian skeleton” in the ancestral closet. Stuartt himself is “a muddy-complexioned little boy with well-brushed hair, a flair for drawing… and excellent memory and exhibitionistic tendencies.” At 15 he includes some Krafft-Ebing sex studies in his voracious reading and is struck by “the regrettable similarity between the symptoms manifested in 127 cases and himself.” His solution? He’ll become an artist. “All artists were strange, or at least they were expected to be.”

His vocation leads him to Harlem and the beginnings of a vibrant cultural stirring. He enters a whirl of artistic humanity in shades ranging from fawn to ebony and meets a prominent white guy named Serge: “big white discoverer of High-Harlem,” who stares at young Stuartt “with undressing blue eyes from a red face deceivingly moronic.”

Harlem offers an endless round of parties crammed with pretenders and politicos of every stripe. With a new friend, Rusty, Stuartt starts a magazine that strongly suggests a real historical one (Fire!! begun with Hughes and Thurman). Nugent traces the convolutions of internalized racism in this crowd with a fascinating mix of scathing wit and deep empathy. Writing from the hotbed of his own Harlem years as an A-list sexual/racial subversive, he never backs away from the biting irony — which is finally the novel’s main lapse. We get the same message, delivered at the same giddy, sardonic pitch, over and over. Still, we can hardly blame the author. Nugent never lived to see a book contract, never sat down to his crucial final draft.

Nugent frames his fictional self as a bisexual. At a party Stuartt tells friends angling for an orientational confession that he sees no reason for a preference. “A woman satisfies one need and a man another. They are really to be enjoyed in entirely different manners.” Late in life Nugent said in an interview that he’d never been drawn to women, but the novel shifts easily and often between sexual poles. About halfway in I found the pages began to flip at breakneck pace. To my delight, Stuartt was cruising a bevy of straight-acting Italian studs in the Village. Then he was inviting one home and then was skin-to-skin in the sheets with him. Swarthy Ray stays the night. Though the real sex happens between chapters the writing is deliciously erotic.

More boyfriends ensue, including a Chicago gangster forced to share Stuartt’s platonic (well, almost) love for a woman named Wayne. The book winds down with a long letter to a friend. Stuartt ponders and probes the broad range of his desires, refusing to pare away feelings of love or lust for either sex. It’s as if both Stuartt and his author simply could no longer pretend, could no longer hide the forces animating their art and their real/imagined lives. Eighty years later Nugent’s queer honesty shines from the page, surprisingly like a voice from our own time.