Review of Preston Allen's Jesus Boy

Jesus Boy
Preston L. Alllen
New York: Akashic, 2010.

Author Bio
Allen was born in Hondorus, but moved to the U.S. with his family when he was three. His family started in Staten Island, moved to Boston, and finally to Miami where he attended middle school and high school.

His family attended Holiness churches, though he is reluctant to offer too many details about what kind of Holiness churches.

Allen received his MFA from Florida International University, and his Creative thesis is titled “The Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters.” Since Allen has indicated he began Jesus Boy when he was around 16, it is possible that this thesis contains early versions of what ended up in Jesus Boy. He currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Miami Dade College.

Jesus Boy is Allen’s sixth book. Five of those books are novels. His short story collection, Churchboys and Other Sinners (2002) won the Sonja H. Stone Prize in Fiction. Some passages in the collection are identical to passages in Jesus Boy. Allen is also an active blogger and frequently discusses religion.

Plot Description
Jesus Boy spans somewhere between 10-15 years and recounts the affair of Elwyn Parker and Sister Elaine Morrisohn. When the affair begins, in 1979, Elwyn is just 16 while Elaine is 42. While Elwyn is wracked by guilt as the affair begins, Elaine is not, instead taking pleasure in their encounters and asserting that the Faithful of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters, a predominantly black Holiness church in Florida, are simply too strict.

Eventually the couple are found out by Elwyn’s family. Despite his family’s efforts to end the affair, the couple continue to see each other, and even plan to get married until Elwyn’s grandmother reveals that Elaine’s dead husband, Buford, is actually Elwyn’s grandfather. Even though there is no blood relationship between Elwyn and Elaine, the connection  is enough to scare him away from marrying her. He does not, however, end their affair.

When Elwyn goes away to college he experiences a crisis of faith from which he never fully recovers. In large part, this crisis is a result of his inability to reconcile his affair with his faith. Elaine, though she still attends church, is unconcerned as long as Elwyn continues to see her. He does this despite marrying another woman.

In the end, Elaine passes away and Elwyn sits by her deathbed, still unsure about how to feel about her, their relationship, and his faith.

The novel also contains many subplots and one major flashback. One of the more important subplots features Peachie, Elwyn’s first love, who marries Elwyn’s rival Barry. While Barry starts a church and television ministry with fluctuating success, he cheats on his wife and beats her. Eventually, they separate. Peachie and Elwyn remain friends even after Elaine dies. In the flashback, Buford has an affair while married to his first wife. This flashback story has striking similarities to the story of Gabriel in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.

The novel ends with a kind of epilogue, where Elwyn has become a womanizing car salesman who specializes in selling cars to preachers. He becomes dissatisfied with selling, and in an act of kindness, makes reparations to a woman who purchases a damaged vehicle. Though he no longer attends church, he frequently quotes scripture to himself, sometimes ironically and even criticizes contemporary believers for their lack of commitment. Clearly haunted by his religious upbringing, Elwyn finds a way to salvage part of it: he begins to believe that God is love. He does not begin attending church again, nor does he leave his position at the dealership (despite threatening to), but he has found a belief he can build on.

Pentecostal Elements
Unlike some of the other memoirs and novels, Jesus Boy makes a sharp distinction between Holiness churches and Pentecostal ones. It is an important reminder that, while in some areas and churches the terms are used interchangeably, that is not always the case.

While Elwyn is at college, he meets Donna and her father, whom he refers to as “Holy Rollers.” Elwyn attends their church and discovers the real difference between Holiness and Pentecostal churches is “the noise. The Rollers used tambourines and drums along with their piano and organ” (210). Of course, that is not the only difference. There is some implication that the Pentecostals engage in speaking in tongues and other ecstatic experiences far more often than the Faithful of the Holiness church. Elwyn sees all of this as showboating.

This does not mean that Holiness believers never engage in ecstatic religious experiences. During a Holiness tent meeting, one of the female believers is slain in the spirit and trembles as the ushers carry her to the back of the church. Various other members cry and pray. Eventually, a white minister who is at the meeting grabs the microphone, speaks in tongues, and runs out of the tent. No interpretation/translation follows. The event startles the other participants at the meeting, but they all seem to interpret it as a miracle. Furthermore, it is interesting that the man is identified simply as the “white man" by the characters. Although his presence points to the multi-ethnic nature of the Holiness church (reinforced in other passages), the constant focus on his race indicates that white members are still a minority.

Even more than these instances of ecstatic religious experience, the constant references to the Holy Spirit moving on/in/over people bears a strong relationship to Pentecostal churches. While it begins in church services, characters begin to use it as an ironic metaphor for sex.

Critical Response
Julia Scheeres of The New York Times praises Allen for exploring the sexy side of church, and the crisis of faith this causes, without turning its characters into caricatures.  This is consistent with other brief reviews of the novel (Bancroft; “Books;” Coan).

O Magazine listed the novel as one of its “Ten More Books to Read,” describing it as an “African-American Romeo and Juliet,as played out in a devout Christian community.” This description was no doubt guided by the publishers description of the Elwyn and Elaine as “the star-crossed African-American Romeo and Juliet” (Akashic). also provides a reading guide with 20 questions about the novel.

An excerpt fromt he novel appears in the Spring 2010 issue of Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire.

To date there has been no scholarly response to the novel.

Works Cited/Consulted
Allen, Preston. Churchboys and Other Sinners. Durham: Carolina Wren P, 2002.

--. “Preston Allen’s Biography.” Red Room. Web. 13 Sept. 2012.

Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Bancroft, Collette. Rev. of Jesus Boy. St. Petersburg Times 17 Oct. 2010. 5L.

“Books; Briefly.” Rev. of Jesus Boy. The International Herald Tribune. 15 May 2010. 22.

Coan, Jim. Rev. of Jesus Boy. Library Journal 135. 7 (Apr 15, 2010): 72.

“Jesus Boy.” Akashic Books. Web. 13 Sept. 2012.

“Reading Questions for Jesus Boy.”, 2010. Web. 13 Sept. 2012.

“Reading Room.” O, The Oprah Magazine 11 (1 June 2010): 111.