R. Eric Thomas is a senior staff writer with a daily humor column at Elle, a playwright and a longtime host of StorySLAMS at The Moth in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — doubtlessly, an experienced wordsmith and public personality in the internet era. But, as his debut book of essays, “Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America,” shows, his life and identity are much more vast and engaging than even this impressive résumé.
“As a child I liked certainty, and order, and clear explanations,” Thomas writes in his introduction. “But life, of course, can quickly get complicated and human.”
In essays that cover his childhood, young adulthood, career and marriage, Thomas brings his trademark humor, but doesn’t shy away from sadness and existential crises. “You don’t exist for a long time,” he writes. “Before you arrive, there are ages, eons — an eternity — without you. (Can you imagine? How boring!) And suddenly there you are. Alive. How you doing? … You still trying to be good, still moisturizing your T-zone, still working through your stack of New Yorkers, still fighting systemic oppression, still speaking truth to power, still attempting to exist?”
In other words, he asks, “Am I really here for this?”
Growing up in Baltimore (specifically West Baltimore), Thomas’ childhood was marked by poverty and violence, but also by a loving family, a fairly warm relationship with Christianity (though his sexuality clashed with its teachings), and the cognitive dissonance and code-switching required in his mostly white suburban school.
With the lens of a gifted humorist and writer, Thomas skillfully crafts a prism from his multifaceted experiences. Thomas grew up with close vision on class and its deep ties to racial injustice, seeing with clear eyes the effects of redlining, and the differences between his neighborhood and those of the white middle-class and upper-class people he babysat for and went to school with. “Redlining and white flight are basically like when someone in a horror movie hears a noise in the basement and everybody (Black) in the movie theater is yelling, ‘Don’t go in there!’ and they go in there anyway,” he writes of the racial divide in Baltimore. “The city, as a concept, is not objectively dangerous. … But literally everyone is in danger in the suburbs.”
In college, Thomas was invited — even pressured — to join “race parties” and Black student organizations and to mentor other students, all while he was figuring out how to come out (he sipped lots of cappuccinos while lurking outside meetings of a student LGBTQ+ group). Later, working his first journalism job, he saw a Black History Month display in a bookstore with “a picture of Harriet Tubman and a picture of Colin Powell,” he writes. “To me it said, ‘Oh, the history of Blacks in this country can be boiled down to the Middle Passage, slavery, and whatever Colin Powell means to you.’”
In response, he wrote his first viral piece, a satire called “An Idiot’s Guide to Black History Month” that, because his name can read as white, caused a huge bit of backlash. Thomas nimbly maps the multilayered ways in which this story (like many others in the book) embodies so much about racial dynamics in America.
Just as he explores race and class with a mix of curiosity and deft understanding, Thomas approaches sexual and gender identity with a calm and open demeanor, despite some anxiety and endearingly awkward moments. “Is there anything as fat with possibility as a crush?” he asks. “Before I knew that I was gay, before I knew sexuality exists on a spectrum and attraction is no respecter of gender … I had crushes. Crushes on celebrities, crushes on classmates of all genders, crushes on books. I had a lot of crushing to do.” When it comes to queer narratives in literature, lightheartedness that embraces the mystery of it all is rare. Thomas goes on to chronicle the ways in which he first crushed on, then tried to pick up, then built a relationship with the man who would become his husband — a preacher, no less, making Thomas a “preacher’s wife.” With its joyful embrace of the strange and funny, “Here For It” is a welcome addition to the genre of queer memoir.
Thomas describes himself as a “spoiler kween,” someone who wants to know the ending right from the start. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, that’s not how life works. You can flip to the last page of a book, or skip to the end of a movie, but it’s everything that happens in between that matters. Without the messy, absurd, beautiful in-between, there is no story. Luckily for the reader of this book, Thomas’ prose discards the easy notion of a spoiler, and lets us in on all of that middle stuff. These are emotionally and intellectually complex stories buoyed by humor and heart — something we can all be here for.
“Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America” by R. Eric Thomas, Ballantine Books, 288 pp., $25.44