Star-crossed intergenerational love between a Christian matriarch and a young church pianist sounds like an unlikely fictional masterpiece, but in Jesus Boy, Preston L. Allen’s empathic, intricate storytelling skillfully unfolds this improbable tale of religious conviction, sexual desire, and social pressure to conform.
While striving to maintain a virtuous private life—and wholly failing to do so—Elwyn Parker struggles with his public image as a young preacher. At the tender age of sixteen, his childhood crush becomes pregnant by another boy, confusing his chaste heart. At the same time, his aged mentor dies, leaving a grieving widow with whom Elwyn takes up, despite their twenty-two year age difference and to the great surprise of them both. Suddenly, sexual vices overwhelm a story of deeply religious believers, who struggle to make sense of the contradictions between spiritual dogma and physical and emotional desires. Most of the story’s characters live hypocritically at best; yet, their humanity is striking and a clear reminder of what it means to live with wholly unrealistic expectations of oneself and one another.
Between the evangelical language and the geography, the novel had additional resonance for me personally. Set in South Florida towns like Lakeland and Plant City, I could easily imagine not only the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters congregations and their church buildings but also the two-lane highways that connect some of the small cities mentioned. My maternal grandparents, retired ministers, have lived in that area for the last decade and attend two church services every Sunday: one in their trailer park, where grandpa leads the worship service, and one at a Church of God in Lakeland.
The book takes many turns, and sometimes I would be reading for several pages about a newly introduced character before all the pieces fell into place. Allen layers themes of familial obligation and incest with religious judgment and piety, all the while undoing any assumption you might make about essential underlying elements of a functional intimate relationship blossoming in the shadow of slavery and racialized poverty. Feminist in the sense that the author exposes the humanity of each character equally, Jesus Boy will encourage the most progressive thinker to reevaluate their moral judgments about love, parenting, pregnancy, and May-December romances.
Akashic Books consistently publishes quality fiction, and Jesus Boy is just one more must have title in their catalog. If you only read five novels this year, this should be one of them.