One of my all-time favorite authors is Pat Conroy. From his exquisite writing I learned the rhythm of the tides and of the shallow marshes of the south. I avidly read sentences, and then stopped to re-read them; over and over again. My mind sees vivid images of oysters and sandbars, of Conroy's life growing up navigating a little boat through the swamp, with the sun beating on his bare back. Everything about the beauty and richness of the Southern United States I learned from Pat Conroy.
Recently, I have had the opportunity to learn another aspect of the south's culture, of what it means to be "southern" in America, and the way in which the Southern people have made an art out of denial. I learned these interesting aspects of southern life through first time-author, Harvey Helms's new book, Blush: The Unbelievably Absurd Diary of a Gay Beauty Junkie.
This incredibly funny, tongue-in-cheek memoir tells the true story of Harvey's life -- taking you on the emotional rollercoaster of growing up a gay man in the south. One minute I found myself laughing out loud, the next minute I was holding back tears, thinking about the struggles facing a young boy in such a hostile, intolerant environment. Harvey knew "When I took my first breath, I was gay." How did Harvey survive that death sentence of being different, of being so feminine that there was nowhere to hide, no closet to pretend? Blush shows just how a young man can learn to accept himself. How Harvey survived this cruel and unusual punishment is clear from one of the very first sentences. "Gay boy drops out of his mother's womb like an Amex at a Prada sample sale." Humor. It is the gift Harvey brought to his life and the gift that he shares with us in this first novel. His ability to find humor and laughter in the absurdity of his southern upbringing is what kept me turning the pages until I had finished the book in one sitting.
Blush takes us through the truth of his experiences being gay, of being bullied throughout school and of his attempted murder. Imagine that: his college roommates were so terrified of catching his "gayness" they tried to kill him. The prospect is as preposterous as it is terrifying. All the while, his mother, his family and friends sipped their mint juleps and ignored the critical conversations concerning Harvey's survival. The author describes these southern belles as if such a conversation were beneath their oozing southern charm.
Harvey went on to become the first male beauty advisor, selling cosmetics behind the department store counter in the south. Today he is still alive to tell the story. In this book, we meet Tammy Faye Baker who takes a shine to Harvey. We meet she-dragons, Belinda the good witch, and the "candy-coated" evil co-workers. Despite the very difficult aspects of being gay, Harvey's book is a testament to his personal resilience and gives hope to others who must overcome their own life challenges. It can and WILL get better. Blush is an authentic, highly personal novel by a one of a kind, authentic human being. A must read.