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DAVID HAYNES knows his way around suburbia. In his second book, Somebody Else's Mama, a woman patiently cares for her twin sons and her ornery mother-in-law while her husband runs for mayor of his Midwestern town. In his young-adult novel Right by My Side, a cynical Missouri teenager cares for himself and his blue-collar dad after his mother runs off to Las Vegas. In Heathens, out this month from New Rivers Press (Forecasts, March 18), a middle-class, motherly entrepreneur concocts a line of self-help beauty products-- as well as an unfortunate get-rich quick scheme. And in Live at Five, just out from Milkweed (Forecasts, Feb. 19), an ambitious Twin Cities newscaster scrambles to hit the big time.
Blue-collar. Midwestern. Middle-class. Such terms connote a certain kind of character, one who stereotypically has a white face. Haynes's principals, however, are African American. This detail perplexes agents and publishers, who aren't quite sure how to market Haynes's apolitical and nonviolent stories of family life. Major publishing houses have scorned him, suggesting that he spice up his work with sex and the drug trade. Independent presses and book clubs have embraced him for creating down-to-earth characters not unlike those of Terry McMillan or E. Lynn Harris.
"I don't tell the popular narratives, the commercial narratives, that one is supposed to tell as an African American writer, and there is a price to be paid for that," Haynes says, acknowledging his fiction's dearth of inner-city mayhem found in bestsellers by Brent Staples and Nathan McCall. "There is an orthodoxy about that subject matter in this country, and I've been actively bucking it in my writing.
"The point I want to make ultimately," he adds, "is that I have people reading the books tell me, …