Buried in the archive for almost ninety years, Romance in Marseille traces the adventures of a rowdy troupe of dockworkers, prostitutes, and political organizers--collectively straight and queer, disabled and able-bodied, African, European, Caribbean, and American. Set largely in the culture-blending Vieux Port of Marseille at the height of the Jazz Age, the novel takes flight along with Lafala, an acutely disabled but abruptly wealthy West African sailor.
Reading [Romance in Marseille], I got the sweaty, panicked sensation of wanting to 'do something' with the information I had ('This book is incredible') before anyone else did. This is how I imagine it feels to be a jewel thief who finds a key to the museum, except what I’m empowered to 'do' with this hot tip instead of stealing a fortune is composing a review ... custom-designed, it would seem, for the modern obliterated attention span! But as with any novel, the themes are only bits of thread unless woven into a dazzling tapestry of a character, which is what we have in Lafala ... there is the best description I’ve ever read of human legs, as well as the best description of waking up and feeling like shit, the best description of erotic satisfaction, and — to dip into extravagant specificity for a moment — the best description of a Corsican pimp fretting that his girlfriend is mentally distancing herself from him ... a novel out of time.
... fascinating ... shows McKay presciently grappling with the destinies of those he calls the 'outcasts and outlaws of civilizations' — migrants in thriving port cities central to the flow of global commerce — and with the violent upheavals and desperate striving that deposited them there ... McKay’s political critique remains biting ... what is remarkable about McKay’s fiction is its rejection of sentimentality of any stripe. Unlike some of his peers in the New Negro Renaissance, McKay refuses to make his fiction 'decorous and decorative' in order to paint a flattering portrait of black life, opting instead for what he admitted could be a 'crude realism' ... queer desire is simply a fact — an acknowledged part of the social landscape — in a way that makes the book seem all the more ahead of its time. The sex is not explicit, but the couplings are impassioned: sometimes vicious, sometimes tender, sometimes vulgar, but above all raw.
... less shocking than strikingly woke, given that its themes include disability, the full spectrum of sexual preference, radical politics and the subtleties of racial identity ... McKay writes in a loose, somewhat elliptical style, with a fair amount of slangy dialect, but he does occasionally grow quite lyrical ... The editors surround McKay’s text with a mildly academic introduction, a discussion of the manuscript’s textual history and 30 pages of explanatory notes. Their critical apparatus sets the novel in its own time and establishes its importance ... Had McKay’s novel been published when it was first written, it would now look right at home in the proletarian company of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931), Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932), James M. Cain’s noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and even, from certain angles, Nathanael West’s bleak comedy Miss Lonelyhearts (1933).