Just a few years ago, E. Lynn Harris was selling his self-published novel Invisible Life out of the back of his car. Today he is a bestselling publishing sensation, with more than one million copies of his four novels sold. To celebrate Harris's incredible success, and offer his fans the opportunity to own, at last, a hardcover version of Invisible Life, Doubleday is proud to announce a special edition of the book so many have cherished.
Invisible Life is the story of a young man's coming of age. Law school, girlfriends, and career choices were all part of Raymond Tyler's life, but there were other, more terrifying issues for him to confront. Being black was tough enough, but Raymond was becoming more and more conscious of sexual feelings that he knew weren't "right." He was completely committed to Sela, his longtime girlfriend, but his attraction to Kelvin, whom he had met during his last year in law school, had become more than just a friendship. No matter how much he tried to suppress them, his feelings were deeply sexual.
Fleeing to New York to escape both Sela and Kelvin, Raymond finds himself more confused than ever before. New relationships--both male and female--give him enormous pleasure but keep him from finding the inner peace and lasting love he so desperately desires. The horrible illness and death of a friend force Raymond, at last, to face the truth.
Invisible Life has been hailed as "one of the most thought-provoking books--since James Baldwin's Another Country" (Richmond Voice), and Harris's "stories have become the toast of bookstores, reading groups, men, women, and gay and straight people" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
Proceeds from the sale of this special fifth anniversary edition will go to the E. Lynn Harris Foundation, a charitable organization that gives young people across the country the opportunity to study writing with established authors, and also aids emerging artists.
About the Author
Date of Birth:June 20, 1955
Date of Death:July 23, 2009
Place of Birth:Flint, Michigan
Place of Death:Los Angeles, California
Education:B.A. in journalism, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, 1977
Read an Excerpt
The Beginning of The End
Protected by a crisp, cloudless sky, I sipped iced tea on the dusty wooden deck of my parents' home. There was a trace of heat; no humidity. It was a few days after my twenty-ninth birthday and I was pondering the next step in my complicated life. While deep in thought, but savoring the Southern tranquillity, I heard my father come through the sliding glass doors. He quietly placed a large envelope, addressed to Raymond Winston Tyler, Jr., on the wrought-iron table, gave me a half smile and returned through the doors. I immediately recognized the familiar feminine handwriting and the New York City postmark. I quickly ripped open the envelope, ignored the card and began to read the letter on the soft pink stationery.
I decided it was time I responded to your letter. How could this happen? Never before have I received a letter filled with so much pain, yet so much love.
The last six months have been like a wild roller coaster ride, full of extreme highs and lows. I find myself numb over the recent events. Why did it happen to us? . . . Why can't we live in a perfect world? . . .
Before continuing to the next page, I laid the letter down, noticing that the moisture from my iced tea glass had caused the name on the envelope to blur and dissolve into an ugly black mess, bringing to mind my current life. As I studied the envelope, I asked myself, How did it happen?
There is something poetic about falling in love. The tingling sensation lingers like the lyrical words of a Langston Hughes poem. There is something romantic about the changing of seasons. A romance reminiscent of an unending summer, or one as fleeting as spring and fall. Whenever I think back on the loves of my life, I am often reminded of the seasons. There are four seasons. I have been in love four times.
It was summer when Sela, my girlfriend, and I drove the five hours back to campus. On this beautiful day, there was no way of knowing that my life, like the season, would soon change. My black Volkswagen was filled to capacity with our clothes, books, albums and items that we couldn't live without during the summer vacation. As we drove down Highway 17, the heavy August sun beat down on us. The Alabama sky was a shimmering summer blue. State troopers were out in numbers trying to catch the fancy cars exceeding the speed limit, giving special attention to cars with THE UNIVERSITY and Greek-letter organization stickers.
Sela and I were both especially excited this year because for me it was my senior year and I would finally be heading to law school, while Sela, now a junior, was moving into her sorority house after a couple of years in the dorm. In the midst of the excitement and happiness, I was feeling a bit melancholy because this was going to be my last year. I was going to miss Sela and my fraternity brothers, who kept my life at this lily white university interesting and fulfilling.
My fraternity, Kappa Alpha Omega, was one of the three black fraternities on campus. While the white fraternities and sororities were going through rush, which we never understood, we were planning a big party to welcome back the black students. We would get a head start on pressing the freshman girls to become our sweethearts and persuading the top black freshman men to pledge Kappa Alpha Omega.
We decided to have the party at the house of one of our advisors, who was also one of the few black faculty members at the university. He owned a huge old rustic house outside of town surrounded by trees so large they cast an indelible shade over the two tennis courts and aqua-colored pool. It was the type of house I dreamed of one day sharing with Sela.
Since I was the social chairman of my fraternity, Sela and I arrived early to make sure that everything was set. We checked the music and food, and made sure the keg of beer was ice-cold. Sela looked beautiful in her white tennis outfit. It was a pleated short skirt with a matching top that looked wonderful against her vanilla wafer brown complexion. Her long black hair was pulled together with a crimson satin ribbon that flowed down her back. Her face, with deep dimples and almond-shaped hazel eyes, was accented by an open smile.
As I watched Sela help our sweethearts prepare for the party, I thought back to the time almost six years ago when I had first laid eyes on her. It was the annual citywide basketball tournament and about five of my football teammates and I went over to North Birmingham to Northeast High for a game.
Northeast High was like most of the high schools in Birmingham, an all-black basketball team and a cheerleader lineup of blue-eyed blondes, with the exception of a pair of identical brunette twins. As my eyes made it to the end of the line, I saw the most beautiful black girl I had ever seen. She had two thick ponytails, one with a gold ribbon and the other with a light blue ribbon, that matched her uniform perfectly.
Whenever tbere was a time-out, Northeast's pep band started to play and the cheerleaders ran onto the court and started their well-rehearsed pom-pom routines. The black girl on the end was spectacular. She appeared to be using her ponytails and high kicks to conduct the band. As her kicks got higher, her ponytails flew in her face, temporarily blocking her view but never causing her to miss a beat. Her blue, gold and white pleated skirt twirled like a kaleidoscope against her light brown skin.
As the band played the theme from Shaft, the cheerleaders and crowd chanted in unison, "Go Chargers . . . Beat those Bears . . . Go Chargers." I became mesmerized by the cheerleader from the opposing school. I became so wrapped up in her that I wanted to cheer for Northeast High instead of my own school. While I watched the cheerleader's every move, someone came up behind me and put his huge arm around my neck in a playful strangle. When I was released, I turned and recognized Bruce Grayson, one of Northeast's star football players.
"Ray Tyler, what are you doing in my neck of the woods?" Bruce asked.
"I'm over here to see my boys kick some Northeast butt," I joked.
Bruce and I had met during the summer when we both were training at the Presidents Health Spa downtown. After talking for a couple of minutes, I asked Bruce who this vision of ebony beauty was. He told me her name was Sela Richards and that she was his play little sister. During halftime Bruce introduced me to Sela. When he left the two of us alone, I became so nervous, not knowing what to do or say, that I put my hands into my orange-and-white leather football jacket, took them out and placed them in my tight-fitting blue jeans and just kept staring at Sela. When I finally found the courage to ask Sela for her phone number, one of the girls on the cheerleading squad came up and grabbed her, telling her it was time for the second half. She smiled at me. "It was nice meeting you," she said, and ran off with the blue-eyed blonde.
During the second half I thought of ways to approach Sela after the game. Before the game ended, Bruce came up to me and gave me a little piece of paper.
"Sela asked me to give this to you," he said, smiling. I looked at the paper and there they were: the seven digits that would lead to my first love.
That night I couldn't sleep for thinking of Sela. I got up at 6:30 A.M. the next morning and called her at 7:15, before I left for school. Our first date was that evening at Baskin-Robbins. Our romance blossomed quickly, even though we lived in different parts of the city and went to different high schools. I attended every Northeast game they had in the city, often borrowing my father's car to take Sela and some of her cheerleader friends to basketball games outside the city. I gave Sela my football jacket and she gave me her tiny gold cheerleader megaphone chain with the Northeast emblem. It was not long before I had fallen in love with the first female in my life other than my mother, grandmother or favorite aunt.
It didn't take long before the party started jumping. A sweet rain had lifted the dizzy August heat. Since Kappa Alpha Omega was the largest black fraternity on campus, we always had the initial party and almost every black student on campus would be there, even those bookworms who probably wouldn't attend another party all year.
It was great seeing everybody, catching up on what had happened during the summer, and seeing the latest dances that people brought back to campus.
As the night wore on, I noticed a tall, muscular guy who seemed to be attracting a lot of attention from all the females. He stood against one of the banisters looking unapproachable, not saying a word. He was dressed in white linen and looked too mature to be a freshman. From his muscular body I could tell he was a jock, but he wasn't with the athletes at the party. Sela and her sorority sisters gathered in a clique, laughing and flirting with the stranger. He danced with a couple of them. I could tell from the way he danced and from his haircut, extra short on the sides, that he was not from the South. No, this guy was East Coast for real.
The party lasted until the wee hours of the morning, and after the beer ran out, we switched to Kappa Alpha Omega punch, a combination of fruit juices and pure grain alcohol. The next morning I woke up with one of my worst hangovers ever, but I had to get up to drive to Birmingham and catch a plane to New Orleans for my cousin's wedding. Why Terrence and Beverly chose August instead of June was a complete mystery to everyone in the wedding party. While on the Delta flight to New Orleans, I had a dream that bothered me. I didn't quite remember all the details, but the stranger from the party the night before was in it. He was visiting the campus to see if he might want to come to school next year. All during my stay in steamy New Orleans I thought about the dream. I was puzzled as to why I was dreaming about a guy I had seen only once and to whom I had never spoken a word. My return flight to school went smoothly and didn't include any illusions about the stranger or Sela, whom I dreamed of often when we were separated.
The football season rolled around, and with it, much cooler weather. Fall was advancing against the backdrop of an immense sky; braids of yellow, red and teal leaves created delicate hues as beautiful as the sweaters worn by my classmates. September flew by, and on the first Friday in October, I was in the locker room at the athletic complex after hitting some tennis balls with one of my frat brothers, Trent Walters. Trent finished his shower and started back to the frat house, where we always gathered before starting the weekend of partying.
This was the weekend of our first home football game, so there would be some serious parties. Kappa Alpha Omega was giving a party too, but this weekend we would be competing with the two other black fraternities for attendees. After I finished dressing, I headed toward the exit of the locker room. I was looking down at my shoes, trying to decide if they needed shining. While trying to adjust my collar from the back, I bumped into a hard body.
"Oh, excuse me," I said. "I wasn't paying attention to where I was going."
"Sure, no problem," the stranger said.
When I looked up at him, my mouth dropped open. It was him! The guy from the party, the guy in my dream.
"Do you have a comb?" he asked.
"Excuse me." I was in a complete state of shock. Was I seeing and hearing him correctly?
"Do you have a comb?" he repeated.
"A comb," I repeated as I tried to regain my composure.
"Yes, a comb."
"I don't think so. Let me look." I suddenly became very nervous. He was staring at me as I frantically looked in my gym bag for a comb.
"It doesn't look like I have one," I said. "I'm sorry."
"No reason to be," he said. "Thanks anyway."
As the stranger walked away, I stood in the same spot, speechless, not knowing what to do next. Suddenly the stranger stopped and turned around toward me.
"Where is the closest place you can buy liquor around here?" he asked.
"Duncan County, about thirty-five miles away. Do you go to school here?" I asked.
"Yes, unfortunately I do."
"Why say it like that?"
"Well, this place is different."
"Yes, it is. Where are you from?"
"Philadelphia?" I asked, a bit surprised.
"Ever heard of it?"
"Of course! How did you wind up down here?"
"My name is Kelvin Ellis," he said, extending his massive hand toward me.
"Raymond Tyler," I said as we shook the regular way and then went into the black-power handshake.
"Where are you from, Raymond?"
"The whole state?" he asked with a smile, exposing almost perfectly white teeth.
"No, I'm from Birmingham."
"I've heard of Birmingham." Kelvin and I had now walked out of the locker room toward the enormous football stadium that anchored the athletic complex while talking about school and the game tomorrow.
"What position do you play?" I asked.
"Are you playing tomorrow?"
"No. I sprained my ankle this week. That's why I was down in the locker room in the whirlpool, getting treatment."
"Do you have a car?" he asked.
"How much would you charge to run me down to Duncan? I've got to get a couple of cases of brew."
"Nothing. I have to go down anyway to pick up some beer for my fraternity. What dorm are you in?"
"Westview, the athletic dorm."
"Okay, be outside in about thirty minutes. I'll be in a black Volkswagen."
I got into my car. I wanted to see if Sela wanted to ride to Duncan with me and my new friend. While I was driving, I began thinking about the dream I had had about Kelvin. Should I tell him? No, he would think I was weird. I began to hum the theme music from "The Twilight Zone" to myself as I pulled up in front of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority house. I went inside and asked the girl at the desk to page Sela Richards.
"Sela Richards, Sela Richards, you have a guest downstairs," she called over the loudspeaker. Five minutes later there was no sign of Sela. I left and went to my apartment, changed clothes and headed toward Westview Hall. When I came to Westview, I could see Kelvin standing against the bike rack. He had changed clothes too. As I approached the dorm, I blew my horn and rolled down my window.
"Get in," I said.
"You don't have to say it but once." He smiled.
As we drove down the highway toward Duncan, I could feel Kelvin staring at me. When we talked, he looked me straight in the eyes. I wasn't sure why, but this made me feel a bit uneasy. We talked about sports, school and, of course, females. We stopped at the first liquor store in Duncan. Kelvin purchased a case of beer and I bought two cases, plus a six-pack for the ride back to campus. While our initial conversation started out tense, after the first beer we both appeared to loosen up.
"Are you dating anyone?" Kelvin asked.
"Yes, Sela Richards. She's a Delta and my HTH."
"Yes. Haven't you heard of hometown honey?"
"Hell no," Kelvin laughed. "HTH."
The time seemed to go by so fast. I became comfortable talking with Kelvin; he was very bright for a freshman. He had a deep baritone voice and a wonderful East Coast accent. He was very pleasant and seemed to know exactly what he wanted out of life. Yes, I thought to myself, a perfect Kappa Alpha Omega pledge prospect.
"What about you?" I asked. "Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Yes, back in Philly. The babes here are so country."
I was driving pretty fast. With the sunroof open, the cool October wind breezed through the car. We had drunk a couple of cans of beer and I started to get a slight buzz, plus I had to piss. "Mind if I pull over? This beer has me running."
"No problem. I can use the stretch."
I pulled over along the side of the road and we both let out some of the beer we had consumed. The oyster-colored sky appeared solid as the setting sun shivered against it and the light breeze blew its own way. Kelvin and I sat on the front of my car and continued our conversation. He told me about growing up in Philly. I shared with Kelvin some of my childhood memories growing up in the South. I couldn't believe how comfortable I felt talking with him. I gave Kelvin my opinion of different people and places on campus and of the virtues of pledging Kappa Alpha Omega. Kelvin seemed interested in most of my conversation, but sometimes he appeared to be staring off into never-never land.
"Do you consider yourself open-minded?" he asked as we got back into my car.
"Yeah, I do."
"Pretty open." As we got closer to campus, Kelvin's questions became more personal. I wondered what he meant by "open-minded."
"Do you sleep with your girlfriend regularly?" he asked.
"Often enough. It's hard sometimes with her in a sorority house and me in a one-bedroom apartment with a roommate. But my roommate and I have worked out a system."
"Yeah. We have signals. Like this weekend he has to vacate the premises. He will either break the dorm rules and stay with his girlfriend or he'll stay with one of our fraternity brothers."
"Oh, I see."
"Would you like to come by my apartment and help me finish this beer?" I asked.
"Sure, why not. I'm out of football for a few weeks."
"Okay, man, let's do it."
Once we reached my apartment, I gave Kelvin another beer. I was putting the rest in the refrigerator when he walked into the kitchen.
"Nice apartment. How much is the rent?"
"Two-fifty? You're kidding."
"A place like this near Penn would cost three times that."
"Yeah, it would. Raymond, can I ask you something?" He was staring at me again with his light brown eyes with their curling black lashes. There was an ardent look about them. No man had ever looked at me this way.
"What did you think I meant when I asked you if you were open-minded?"
"I don't know. I really didn't think about it."
"No, I didn't. What did you mean?"
"Well, I'm not sure the good people of Alabama are going to be able to deal with me."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because I'm bisexual," Kelvin said.
"You're what?" I asked, almost spitting out the beer I had just swallowed.
"Bisexual. I make it with guys and girls. Haven't you heard of it?"
"Yeah, sure, we had sissies at my high school."
"Do I look like a sissy to you?"
"No, of course not, but . . ."
By this time I was getting nervous. Kelvin was standing very close to me, literally blocking my path to the living room and front door. Should I run or should I hit him? I just stood there and continued to talk, trying to change the conversation. "You want to go grab a pizza?"
"You're avoiding my question."
"No, I'm not . . . it's just that . . ."
"It's just what?"
"Well, Kelvin, you're a good-looking guy. You could probably get any girl you want."
"And I do."
"Don't you like girls?"
"I love women. Nobody eats trim better than me."
"Yeah, you know, pussy."
"Oh. Then tell me, Kelvin, why in the fuck would you want to mess around with a man?"
"Variety is the spice of life."
"If you say so."
"So, Ray, tell me. Have you ever made it with a guy?"
"Hell no!" I protested.
"Don't get bent out of shape, Raymond."
The questions and the conversation were making me agitated. I wanted to appear more sophisticated. Maybe this was an East Coast thing. Did Kelvin guess about the one time I had experimented with my cousin Marcus, when we were both around nine years old? We had really only compared the size of our growing peters. How could he possibly know that?
I looked Kelvin straight in the eyes. "I'm not bent out of shape. That shit's not my style."
"Maybe you haven't run across the right man."
Trying to avoid Kelvin's eyes, I looked down at the gold shag carpet. When I decided to look up, I noticed Kelvin's erection bulging through his jeans and became even more nervous. What had I gotten myself into? This guy was bigger than me. There was a brief, uncomfortable pause. The silence was as heavy as one of my grandma's homemade quilts.
"Well, man, we better head back toward campus," I said.
"Sure. Come here for a second--there's something in your hair."
Without thinking, I moved closer to Kelvin. With the palm of his hands, he softly rubbed my entire face. I quickly pulled back.
"What the fuck are you doing?" I shouted.
A slight smile flickered over his face and he said, "Your skin looked so smooth that I had to touch it."
I didn't respond, silenced by his stare. His eyes were deep-set and defiant. Then he touched my nose and moved his fingers down to my lips. I don't know why, but I didn't stop him as he cupped my face and suddenly kissed my lips. I couldn't believe it, but it felt so natural. It was the first time I had ever kissed a man. I had never felt a spasm of sexual attraction toward a man. Honest to God. But his kiss. I had never kissed anyone like this, not even Sela. Before I was conscious of it, I was kissing Kelvin back and putting my arms around his waist. His force left little room for hesitation or resistance. I felt his strong body press toward mine--and an erection in my Jockey underwear, just aching to come out. I finally managed to pull back when I realized my sex was now full and hard, pressing against my navel. Kelvin looked down at me, gave a half-cocked grin and then pulled me toward him once again. This time there was no resistance.
Reading Group Guide
1. Raymond is initially upset by his sexual encounter with Kelvin, but soon settles into a routine of seeing both Sela and Kelvin [p. 30]. Would he have behaved the same way if he were seeing two women simultaneously? Do you think Sela would have been aware of his unfaithfulness if his relationship was with another woman, rather than a man? How does the clandestine nature of Raymond's relationship with Kelvin influence their feelings about one another?
2. Raymond says "There were times, however, I needed Sela, not just for public appearances, but because deep in my heart I truly cared for her" [p. 34]. Is he being completely honest with himself, or is he clinging to an image of himself as a heterosexual? Why is he unable to tell Kelvin that he loves him?
3. In what ways are Raymond's reactions to the gay community in New York similar to his feelings about being a black man at a white high school and college? Do you think Raymond's sense of himself as an "outsider" is inevitable for minorities in a predominantly white and straight society?
4. Why is Kyle, whose background is similar to Raymond's, able to be perfectly open about being gay? What does Kyle's choice of lovers who are "not his equal in looks, economic standing or intelligence" [p. 74] reveal about him?
5. How does Raymond's visit to his parents help you understand his difficulties in coming to terms with his bisexuality? Why can't he and his mother talk openly about it? Do the events of the weekend, as well as conversations Raymond and his father have throughout the book, justify Raymond's feeling that his father would take his sexual orientation as "a personalslap in the face" [p. 88]?
6. As a professional athlete and public figure, is it essential for Basil to keep his bisexuality a secret? Do athletes and other people in the public eye risk more than ordinary people when they come out? Discuss both the negative and positive repercussions of recent disclosures of homosexuality by famous people.
7. In thinking about Basil and other black men who lead secret lives, Raymond says "Had I stayed in Alabama, my life would have been similar. There was no way I would involve my family in my gay lifestyle. Besides, I came to realize that it was a lifestyle and not my life" [p. 168]. Is sexuality merely a "lifestyle" or does it define us in a fundamental way? To what extent are Raymond and the other characters in the novel defined by their sexual behavior and their attitudes about sex and love?
8. Do you think there is a special affinity between beautiful and smart black women and gay or bisexual black men? How would you answer the questions Raymond raises when he is contemplating Kelvin and Candance's engagement and his own relationship with Nicole [p. 186]?
9. Do individual men, whether straight, gay, or bisexual, have an ethical or moral responsibility to be open about their sexuality with their partners, even when coming out may threaten their position in society and their futures? What role should women take in dealing with the AIDS epidemic?
10. The title Harris chose for his first book--and eventually for the entire trilogy--echoes Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a seminal work in African-American literature. How does the world Ellison describes compare to Harris's description of the African-American community today? Are the protagonists similar in any way? Does "Invisible Life" only refer to the lives of the gay and bisexual men, or does it encompass aspects of the women's lives as well?
11. Discuss the views of homosexuality you have encountered in your own life. Are most people more willing to accept racial and religious differences than sexual differences? Do gay black men and women suffer greater doubts and more guilt than gay whites? Why or why not? What cultural factors influence the way people feel and talk about sexuality? Did the novels change your own feelings about the gay community?
12. The characters' relationships with their parents is an important theme in the trilogy. What impact does her mother's criticism have on the choices Nicole makes and her image of herself? Is Basil's hostility toward women a result of being raised by his father? Do you think his father genuinely loved him? Why didn't his father succeed in teaching Basil "to be a man and to try and do what's right"? Is Peaches a believable character or is Harris's portrait of her too idealistic? Are you more sympathetic to Yancey when you find out how her mother treated her as a child?
13. Discuss the differences between the views on race, religion, and gender expressed by the two generations. How do they reflect the society in which each generation grew up? Do you think Americans are becoming more tolerant or that age-old prejudices still thrive?