Endearing teen really ought to grow up

July 29, 1993|By Veronica Chambers | Veronica Chambers,Los Angeles Times

In the realm of African-American literature, beyond the pathos of race and rage, lies that rare African-American character: the Buppie. Black and upwardly mobile, he or she is just as defined by class as by color, and is just as American as African-American.

In his highly acclaimed first novel, "Platitudes," Trey Ellis showed us the life of a baby Buppie -- a young black teen-ager, not from the 'hood, but at an affluent prep school. By flipping back and forth between his protagonist and the older-writer alter ego, he painted a modernist narrative, breaking both traditional form and subject.

In his new novel, "Home Repairs," Mr. Ellis gives us another young hero from the black middle-class -- Austin McMillan, a young black man who is more preoccupied with getting his first kiss than with analyzing his race. Not that race isn't an issue: He is, after all, at a predominantly white school, and to date or not to date interracially is a very big question. He talks about meeting a white (platonic) girlfriend at Central Park for a Judy Collins concert, then notes:

"Nearly every black man there was with a white woman. My folks actually said they expected me to marry a white girl, since after Michigan they brought us up around the poor white ignoramuses of southern New England. Yet, I was always determined to prove them wrong. I never even went out with a white girl (all right, all right, I've never gone out with any girl, but I've only tried to go out with black girls)."

The novel is bursting with teen-age testosterone and the adventures thereof. Austin participates in panty raids, watches nude girls sunbathe from the roof with binoculars; then, of course, there's masturbation, masturbation and more masturbation. To his credit, Mr. Ellis writes these "Animal House"-like scenes with a self-deprecating wit that is endearing.

For example, when Austin is later rejected by Joie, the girl who gave him his first kiss, he says: "Of course last year's kiss didn't matter, and she went right back to torturing me. I hope all her colleges reject her and she goes nuts and ends up in a women's prison."

Austin McMillan, however, does not end up in a women's prison (in his dreams!). Where he does end up is Stanford University, where his goals, if not lofty, are at least socially ambitious. He writes that his collegiate priorities are as follows:

1. Fall in love

2. Get laid

3. Become cooler

a) dress better

b) dance better

c) be more charming . . .

4. Graduate Phi Beta Kappa.

We watch Austin struggle through Stanford, not academically but socially. He is rejected by girl after girl, none of them too memorable. His experience as an exchange student in Italy is the strongest of these entanglements -- charming in its Henry Miller-esque tone of Young Man Abroad, rife with passions that are doomed from the start. (This theme will re-emerge, post-university, when Austin and a pal go hitchhiking in Mexico -- looking for girls, of course.)

Unfortunately, the novel loses steam toward the end. Although Austin's post-college career as a cable TV host for a home repair show (hence the title) is entertaining, his sexual pursuits become decreasingly so. What was cute when he was 17 becomes tiresome in his 20s. The girlfriends -- usually fashion models -- also become less and less appealing. A typical date consists of Austin stroking the ego of these Amazon beauties. For example, there is Didi and her depression:

Austin: "Do you want to talk about it?"

Didi: "Willi Wear offered me their fall collection in South America. Then guess what! My stupid passport expired just last month, but I didn't know till they were booking my flight."

Austin: "That's no big deal. If you pay extra, you can get one in twenty-four hours."

Didi: "Well . . . my birth certificate was with a friend back in Florida, and it was all really messy, and they liked this other girl just as much, I guess, but shoot. . . ."

Austin: "The important thing is that someone liked you. That means it will happen again."

Didi: "You think so?"

Austin: "You are as beautiful as anyone on the planet. Of course you'll be a success."

Didi: "I needed to hear that now. You're a sweetie."

And so on. When the fashion models diss him, as they invariably do, it's hard to feel for him, since he seems most interested in how they look. And while in the end, he goes for the girl with substance and soul, it's too neat a finale to his shallow exploits. It's as if he's all of a sudden decided to do the right thing, but the decision is made in his writer's head and not his character's heart.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Home Repairs"

Author: Trey Ellis

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 332 pages, $21

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