June/July/Aug 2008

The Roles of Black Folk

Paul Beatty seeks a bigger, badder African-American identity

Alex Abramovich


In his first year as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Phil Jackson made headlines by passing important books out to his star players: Shaquille O’Neal described the author of Ecce Homo as “ahead of his time” and “digital” and began referring to himself as “the black, basketball-playing Nietzsche.” Kobe Bryant, who viewed Jackson’s gesture as a personal affront, judged the book he received—Paul Beatty’s first novel, The White Boy Shuffle (1996)to be “bogus.”

Well, yes. Insofar as The White Boy Shuffle is fiction, it might be described as such. And in Bryant’s defense, it’s the kind of novel that goes out of its way to embrace the improbable. In a prologue, Beatty’s narrator—a black nerd who grows up to be a basketball prodigy, a best-selling poet, and a latter-day leader of the African-American people—summarizes the book’s action thus: “In the struggle for freedom, a reluctant young poet convinces black Americans to give up hope and kill themselves in a climactic crash ’n’ burn finale. . . . Some violence and adult language.” But The White Boy Shuffle is also outrageous, courageous, and laugh-out-loud funny; reading it, you get the sense that circumnavigating the bogus wasn’t high up on Beatty’s to-do list. For him, boring would have been a far greater insult.

Born in Los Angeles in 1962, Beatty made his name in 1990 when he won the first Grand Slam tournament at the NuYorican Poets Café. He is also the author of two poetry books and the editor of an anthology of African-American humor, Hokum (2006), which collects “The Wit and Wisdom” of Mike Tyson and makes room for speeches by the Reverend Al Sharpton and Malcolm X. The poetry was risky—full of sharp turns and slangy, off-kilter associations—and Beatty’s predilection for risk-taking informs the outlandish plots, broadly drawn characters, and flights of rhetorical fancy that make his fiction something of an acquired taste. His second novel, Tuff (2000)—a claustrophobic satire about an inner-city thug who muscles his way into New York City politics—is also an exercise in pushing ghetto dialect to its limits and in seeing how many times the author can use words like nigger and motherfucker. (The answer is: countless, and in the most unexpected ways.) Beatty’s new novel, Slumberland, begins with the assertion that “blackness is passé,” but takes place in and around a West Berlin bar, called Slumberland, where white women go to pick up black expats and African workers. These works all share Beatty’s disdain for the polite conventions of “African-American literature; they’re part of an ongoing effort to escape and explode those conventions—and, by extension, the conventions of African-American identity itself—regardless of free drinks forsaken along the way.

Slumberland’s narrator, Ferguson W. Sowell, is a California-born crate digger, disc jockey, and maker of mash-ups who goes by the name DJ Darky, or “DJ Darky—That Right-brained, Self-Absorbed Agoraphobic Boy.” (The moniker is a dig at hopelessly self-important “illbient” pioneer Paul Miller—aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid.) In Los Angeles, Sowell supports himself by scoring porn films—Splendor in the Ass and All the President’s Semen—until one day, he receives a videotape of a man having interpersonal relations with a chicken. The film is . . . well, what it is. But the sound track is sublime, and Sowell recognizes it immediately as the work of Charles Stone, an avant-jazz musician who disappeared in Berlin some thirty years earlier. The timing is apropos: Sowell’s had his fill of America—for him, the country’s become an amalgam of clichés that have long since run their courses. “Listening to America these days is like listening to the fallen King Lear using his royal gibberish to turn field mice and shadows into real enemies,” Sowell says. “America is always composing empty phrases like ‘keeping it real,’ ‘intelligent design,’ ‘hip-hop generation,’ and ‘first responders’ as a way to disguise the emptiness and mundanity.” And so, Sowell decamps for Berlin, secures a job as Slumberland’s “jukebox sommelier,” and canvasses the city in search of Stone. Along the way, he looks out and listens for European alternatives to his own, clichéd (African-)American experience.

But of course, the German language carries its own share of dead weight. German lives are hardly free of emptiness and mundanity, and Sowell finds that, if anything, the all-American clichés he’s fleeing are more deeply ensconced abroad. “I bet you’re either from Lagos or Los Angeles,” a customer at Slumberland tells him. “Now, if you show me your penis, I can tell by the size, girth, and curvature what African tribe your male ancestors hail from.” (“Man,” Sowell thinks. “These Germans, they either want to fuck you or kill you. Sometimes both. Just like everybody else.”) When he ventures out to other bars, some sympathetic mensch invariably corners him and says something along the lines of, “You know, jazz improvisation comes from the slaves having to improvise in order to survive. Too bad every idiom of black music, be it jazz or rhythm and blues, or whatever, has declined in its Negroidery and purpose. It’s become whitified.” Sowell replies:

I quickly learned not to respond to jazzophile opinions that, judging from their use of words like Negroidery and whitified, had been stolen from the latest Wynton Marsalis magazine interview. I held then, and still do, that it’s ridiculous to think that slavery had anything to do with jazz improvisation. In order to survive, slaves didn’t improvise, they capitulated. The ones who stood their ground and fought back died. Making a holiday meal from pig innards isn’t improvisation; it’s common sense to throw whatever’s left into the fucking pot. If anybody was improvising, it was the free black population. And if anybody was “whitified,” it was the suit ’n’ tie–wearing Marsalis.

This is one of several attacks on Marsalis, who functions, within the novel, as the ideological and aesthetic opposite of Sowell’s elusive idol, Charles Stone. Stone is a world-class eccentric who speaks “in a new grammatical person called ‘first person Jesus’” (as in, “Jesus told me to tell you”) and plays a music so free that, at one point, he forgoes instrumentation entirely and accompanies himself with a paperback, ruffling the pages against his pant seam and playing “chapter seven like a diatonic harmonica.” (“Who knew a Signet paperback was in the key of D?” Sowell marvels.) For Sowell, Marsalis isn’t a musician—he’s an embalmer—and the program he curates, Jazz at Lincoln Center, is a mausoleum. Sowell goes so far as to describe it as an “Auschwitz of free thought.” By way of contrast, Stone’s music “is anarchy. It’s Somalia. It’s the Department of Motor Vehicles. It’s Albert Einstein’s hair.” It’s hard not to draw parallels between Sowell’s contempt for Marsalis and Beatty’s own, obvious dissatisfaction with the stale currents of African-American literature or to read Stone’s music as an aural equivalent of the new, unfettered African-American literature that Beatty himself is working to create.

In fact, Slumberland shares many of the attributes of Stone’s music: It, too, is lyric, ecstatic, all over the place. Beatty’s characters are cartoonish; the plot, picaresque and wildly digressive. And yet, these riffs and digressions have a way of circling back and hitting their marks. Take, for instance, Sowell’s comparison of post­reunification Germany and Reconstruction-era America:

The country had every manifestation of the post-1865 Union save Negro senators and decent peanut butter. . . . There were the requisite whining editorials warning the public that assimilation was a dream, that the inherently lazy and shiftless East Germans would never be productive citizens. There were East Germans passing for West Germans. . . . It wasn’t even unusual to see Confederate flags stickered to car bumpers and flying proudly from car antennas. The stars and bars were a racist’s surrogate for the illegal swastika, though if you confronted somebody about it they’d claim it represented an appreciation of rockabilly music, especially that of Carl Perkins.

The sentences are simple, but the forces at play are remarkably complex. Beatty’s conflation of historical streams is telling: Sowell’s come to Germany to define a new, post­historical identity. But history, and historical conventions, are all that Sowell has to push against, and they tend to assert themselves in direct proportion to how hard he pushes. Unable to escape history and unwilling to embrace it, Sowell gets his only comfort from present-tense pleasures: sex, music, the occasional spliff.

By the same token, Slumberland’s author is also hemmed in and defined by the literary conventions he’s set out to upend: Whether he likes it or not, a novel about the end of blackness is still a novel about being black. And try as he might to expand the boundaries of his own identity as a black writer (even to the extent that the author’s discomfort with that identity becomes his novel’s true subject), the project tends to cancel itself out. This makes Slumberland darker, more fatalistic, and more disturbing than Beatty (a comedic writer at heart) might have intended. It, too, offers present-tense pleasures—but very little comfort, and no sense that the fun house (which is also a torture chamber) has an exit.

Alex Abramovich last wrote for Bookforum about Leonard Michaels.

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