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Dark Ages

Anarchic comic universe infuses cool black guy's saga

The White Boy Shuffle
By Paul Beatty
Houghton Mifflin; 223 pages; $19.95

Reviewed by Troy Patterson

In two collections of verse--Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce--Paul Beatty has displayed prodigious talents. His poems reveal the kaleidoscopic mind of a modernist, the cojones of a stand-up comic and the shy, sweet soul of a Beat--academic elegance and pop culture kinetics combined in a syncopated, streetwise stew. With The White Boy Shuffle, Beatty tries his hand at fiction. The book is typical of first novels in that it is somewhat autobiographical and somewhat tentative. It is exceptional in all other respects.

We begin at the end. Gunnar Kaufman--street poet, basketball legend and black America's accidental chieftain--hangs out in Los Angeles, waiting to die. Though he himself has conceived the "Emancipation Disintegration," the atomic mass-suicide of all 22 million American blacks, Gunnar still concedes that "this messiah gig is a bitch."

The story that follows is Gunnar's comic coming of age, and he immediately disarms any expectation of standard heroics: "Unlike the typical bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son. I wish I were, but fate shorted me by six brothers and three uncles. ... I never possessed the god-given ability to strike down race politic evildoers with a tribal chant, the wave of a beaded whammy stick, and a mean glance. Maybe some family fool fucked up and slighted the ancients. Pissed off the gods, too much mumbo in the jumbo perhaps, and so the sons must suffer the sins of the fathers."

The novel recalls Pynchon and Ellison in equal measures as "the only cool black guy at Mestizo Mulatto Mongrel Elementary, Santa Monica's all-white multicultural school" transfers to Manischewitz Junior High, deep in the West LA 'hood. Having suffered some re-quisite beatdowns by gangs like the Gun Totin' Hooligans, Gunnar eventually befriends (behomeboys?) Nick Scoby, who plays Virgil to Gunnar's Dante, guiding the poet through the purgatorial sprawl of LA.

After high school, the two are off to Boston University, which has just bought its way into the Ivy League: "Of course, we had to offer tuition remission to all the students with IQ's under 125 we kicked out," the BU recruiter says, "but they'll get into other schools, if they don't snort it all away."

Beatty has created an anarchic comic universe, and that he lampoons street gangs and the LAPD with equal acuity shows that his engagement with social issues never lapses into heavy-handed polemics. At the eye of the satiric storm is Gunnar, a hero vulnerable enough to earn our compassion and so credible that we wish the rest of Beatty's characters were as subtly crafted.

I hope that Paul Beatty keeps writing novels, and I hope those novels don't pull any emotional punches. This could, after all, be the voice of the 21st Century.

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From the August 20-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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