The Pequod Review:
In many ways, Giovanni’s Room is James Baldwin’s attempt to do for homosexuality what Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) did for African-Americanism — present its characters in realistic, ambiguous and ultimately sympathetic ways. The plot of Giovanni’s Room is a bit formulaic (involving the telegraphed love affair between two young men), and the characters aren’t as persuasively drawn as in his earlier novel. But Baldwin writes first-rate observational scenes; here for example is how he describes the moment when David (a young American) met his soon-to-be lover Giovanni (an Italian bartender):
Jacques was aware, I was aware, as we pushed our way to the bar — it was like moving into the field of a magnet or like approaching a small circle of heat — of the presence of a new barman. He stood, insolent and dark and leonine, his elbow leaning on the cash register, his fingers playing with his chin, looking out at the crowd. It was as though his station were a promontory and we were the sea.
Jacques was immediately attracted. I felt him, so to speak, preparing himself for conquest. I felt the necessity for tolerance.
“I’m sure,” I said, “that you’ll want to get to know the barman. So I’ll vanish anytime you like.”
There was, in this tolerance of mine, a fund, by no means meager, of malicious knowledge — I had drawn on it when I called him up to borrow money. I knew that Jacques could only hope to conquer the boy before us if the boy was, in effect, for sale; and if he stood with such arrogance on an auction block he could certainly find bidders richer and more attractive than Jacques. I knew that Jacques knew this. I knew something else: that Jacques’s vaunted affection for me was involved with desire, the desire, in fact, to be rid of me, to be able, soon, to despise me as he now despised that army of boys who had come, without love, to his bed. I held my own against this desire by pretending that Jacques and I were friends, by forcing Jacques, on pain of humiliation, to pretend this. I pretended not to see, although I exploited it, the lust not quite sleeping in his bright, bitter eyes and, by means of the rough, male candor with which I conveyed to him his case was hopeless, I compelled him, endlessly, to hope.
The book also has some depth as Baldwin doesn’t focus solely on the characters’ sexual orientation, but on the importance of living a life of passion, commitment and love — even when these decisions limit our freedoms and close off other future possibilities.