At ten years old, Brian Broome tried to take lessons from his friend Corey on how to be “cooler”:
“…Black boys had to show through our behavior that we were undeniably, incontrovertibly the most male. The toughest. We sat on either end of his bed and I got lost in his pretty brown eyes as he explained that white boys were basically girls—‘pussies’—and that there was nothing worse than a boy being like a girl. I stared blankly, wanting to kiss him.”
Beautifully interwoven with the spare but piercing lines of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool,” Punch Me Up to the Gods nevertheless unravels the complicated realities of being Black and male and gay.
Buffeted at the crossroads of these three forces, Broome struggled with addiction, aching loneliness, and a desperate hunger for love. He writes, “this need to be loved by everyone has led me down dark roads more times than I can tell in one book—in one thousand books even—and all I have to show for it are these stories.” But the stories he tells show so much.
Broome organizes the events in his life around themes based on Brooks’s poem, creating a revolving, prismatic narrative that offers readers a searing initiation into his experience. We accompany him as he stands onstage as the only Black student in his middle school spelling bee, as he reluctantly attends his first pride parade, as he plays with his sister’s dolls, as he fights off a drunk, deeply disturbed closeted man during a failed one night stand. We follow along on his clandestine childhood foray to the Ladies Department during a back-to-school shopping trip, on his first harrowing visit to a 90s-era gay bath house, on his reluctant pilgrimage to his estranged father’s deathbed.
The book’s thematic organization makes its structure unpredictable, though its depth and resonance steadily increase with each chapter. Broome’s sentences can also end up in unexpected places. While some are light and silky smooth, others snap at the end like a bullwhip, provoking a mental double take, a yelp of laughter, or a twist of anguish (sometimes all three). Describing his prison-like high school: “The school colors were red and gray, like a gunshot wound through an old man’s head.” Of his first successful hit of cocaine: “But after a few seconds, the drug worked its way to the back of my throat, filling it with that new car smell.” In his first agonizingly awkward hour at his first Black gay bar: “I stay because I know, without a doubt, that once I walk out and the door slams behind me, they will all laugh. Their laughter would confirm for me, finally, that there is no place in the world for me to go.”
Broome’s stories may take us many places, but they reliably return us to his body. This is a visceral book. Broome writes about his body in a way that you will feel in your own. His powers of kinesthetic communication first become clear in his descriptions of the violence that permeated his youth. His father tried to “correct” his “girlish” tendencies through vicious corporal punishment: “When he punched me in the stomach, my flesh engulfed his wrist.”
Over and over he recounts how his father painfully enforced his standards of masculinity, but Broome also portrays his own body as a kind of inescapable bully that wouldn’t cooperate with who and how he wants to be in the world. Despite the attempts of his father and his classmates to make him more masculine, his “black, male body has betrayed its manhood on many occasions.”
Some instances of this are full of both pathos and humor, such as his first attempt at cunnilingus, or his dismal performance during an unexpected one-man basketball exhibition demanded by a white love interest who fetishizes his “Black athleticism”:
“It bounces between my legs, causing me to look backward after it and go chasing it down the court. Once caught, I accidentally kick it, hunched over in a ridiculous display of ineptitude. I kick it, chase it down again, and attempt to hold it aloft in my best ‘I meant to do that’ pose. I launch it toward the basket in a foppish toss and it bounces away and I chase it again.”
His lover is shocked by this incompetent display, not only because Broome’s performance destroyed his assumption that a tall, slender Black man would be good at basketball, but also because Broome encouraged that assumption in the first place. Rather than being upfront about his lack of prowess on the court, Broome went in another direction, telling him:
“‘When I play ball, I just feel free, you know? I feel like I can forget my problems and just focus on playing the game. I can just let go of all my stress….All I can think about is getting the ball to the hoop. It just becomes, like…necessary for some reason, you know?’”
Broome calls out his former self as a frequent liar whose mistruths were intended to help him create the life he wanted to live. Though readers are privy to the lies he tells, both to others and to himself, this book is raw, unvarnished, open. When he visits his dying father, he frames it as a scene from a movie, delivering imaginary lines of dialogue and even noting camera angles. But he imbues this scene with a truth that crumbles every inch of this artiface, infusing his final moments with his father with the thrumming ache of a stark reality: the gulf between them has grown too wide to be crossed, even before a final parting.
Broome’s stories about his life as a gay Black man balance this stinging honesty with intelligence, compassion, and wit. Though these stories may be all he has to show for his earlier quests for others’ approval, they are themselves worthy of the kind of love and appreciation Broome struggled to find in his younger days.
Punch Me Up to the Gods
By Brian Broome
Published May 18, 2021
Dana is a writer and editor living in Chicago.