peteg's blog - noise - books - 2015 12 31 PaulBeatty TheWhiteBoyShuffle

Paul Beatty: The White Boy Shuffle.

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Kindle. Finished it off at Quán Làng Cát (on the beach at 2/2 Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, Hàm Tiến) on a day when I hoped to be scootering somewhere west of Phan Thiết. The ladies at Diễm Liên would not rent me a motorized vehicle as the cops are apparently blitzing the place in search of some New Year lucre. (Diễm said the situation would remain until after Tết, though I am sure they will be renting scooters out to more insistent foreigners than I before then.) Similarly the ladies at Quán Làng Cát wouldn't sell me a tôm kho tọ (prawn claypot) for lunch as I'd had them too many days in a row already. On the upside they make a decent coffee and their hammock is somewhat comfortable.

This is Beatty's debut novel from 1996: a first-person growing-up-black-in-L.A. story, somewhat like his most recent effort, but with more emphasis on the growing up part. The Trek and the DnD echo Clune's recent Gamelife, though the surfing and conviviality of outdoorsy Santa Monica were beyond Clune's pasty-geek experience. Gunnar, the narrator, is nerdy, a poet, but also a basketball hero and therefore beyond it all. His account of his ancestry is hilarious. I don't know why they all had German names. The teleology of it all would have made Aristotle weep.

[...] I tried to appreciate Spock's draconian logic, Asimov's automaton utopias, and the metaphysical excitement of fighting undead ghouls and hobgoblins in Dungeons and Dragons, but to me Star Trek was little more than the Federalist Papers with warp drives and phasers. "Set Democracy on stun. One alien, one vote." I was cooler than this, I had to be — I just didn’t know how to show my latent hipness to the world.

The change in semesters brought new electives and a chance to make new friends. All the exciting choices, like Print and Electric and Wine-making Shop, were gang member bastions and closed to insouciant seventh-graders such as myself. During spring registration I stood in line behind sloe-eyed bangers and listened to kind liberal guidance counselors derail their dreams. "Buster, I know you want to take Graphic Design, but I’m placing you in Metal Shop. Mr. Buck Smith will know how to handle you, and it’ll be a good prerequisite for license plate pressing. You’ve got to plan for the future, Buster, ol' boy. Can’t be too shortsighted, Mr. Brown. Remember, the longest jail sentence starts with one day."

Clearly Beatty has read the DSM cover to cover, and finds (at least some of) it laughable. His neighbour/gangbanger cares so much about him that his gift on Gunnar's eighteenth birthday is a mail order bride. After milking the delivery of/marriage to Yoshiko itself for laughs, Beatty spins the arrangement out against type: the couple is happy and harmonious, somewhat due to Gunnar therefore escaping rampant objectification by the local ladies. There is more vivid racial commentary, rejection of the wisdom of the tribal elders (87%: "If a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live. Martin Luther King, Jr"), a meditation on suicide and perhaps an incitement to, an easy familiarity with brutality, and much else. He uses words the Kindle dictionary does not ken.

That poets will once again be universally recognised as opinion leaders and placed at the centre of the culture is a trope this book shares with Hal Hartley's contemporaneous masterpiece, Henry Fool.