Hoodwinked: Paul Beatty's Urban Nihilists
Review by ishmael reed April 2000
Paul Beatty, more than any other black male writer under 40, has received the fame that has eluded others of his generation. The late Hoyt Fuller, editor of Black World magazine, said that for every well-known black writer there are 10 others who are just as good, struggling somewhere. It helps to have a powerful patron. Mine was Langston Hughes. Michele Wallace and Toni Morrison have identified Gloria Steinem as the driving force behind the success of black literary divas like Alice Walker. Allen Ginsberg championed the work of Paul Beatty and Ginsberg was right.
Beatty is one of the most talented young writers to come along in many years. He has the guts and verve and genius of a Tiger Woods on paper. His writing skills are extraordinary. The only problem with Tuff, his new novel, is the subject matter-"urban nihilism," a term used by writer Richard Price, who has made millions covering life in the hood. When Claude Brown wrote his brilliant Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), hood material was fresh. But now, with television's repetitive parade of the kind of characters found in this book-their roughly textured Ebonics, their life on the "existential" edge (think 24-hour installments of Cops, and the exposure to the brothers and sisters who appear on Jerry Springer)-and with the commercialization of rap which has resulted in a glut, a novelist who covers this familiar territory had better be original. In some ways, Beatty meets that test-his urban nihilists are far more nuanced than those of Tom Wolfe, whose black characters have less of a vocabulary than your Stanford laboratory monkey, or Quentin Tarantino, whose films include direct quotes from Birth of a Nation. With his character Fariq, Beatty introduces the hood intellectual, a type ignored by white tourist writers like Price, Wolfe, and David Simon. Fariq says: "That's why a prudent motherfucker like me has an IRA account, some short-term T-Bills, a grip invested in long-term corporate bonds and high-risk foreign stock. Shit, the twenty-first-century nigger gots to have a diversified portfolio-never know when you gon' have a rainy day."
But, for the most part, many of the situations and images belong to the cliché hall of fame: "Rats scaled mountains of trash bags." Also, the book should gain an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the number of times the words nigger and motherfucker are used.After a white woman psychiatrist used the terms in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry, maybe the words should be retired.
All of the "pathologies" which have been ascribed exclusively to the urban nihilists (dysfunctional families and crime, for instance) are displayed by Beatty, whose narrator speaks a pretentious English as a way of separating himself from the homeboys. "Yolanda [Winston's lover] saw her reflection framed by the sentimental bromide and succumbed to the wanton manipulation that is romance." Added to the traditional "pathologies" that we hear about endlessly are homophobia and anti-Semitism-even though the typical perpetrators of violence against gays and Jews are white men. Beatty even introduces a black rabbi named Spencer Jefferson Jr., who becomes the big brother to the novel's main character, Winston "Tuffy" Foshay. After a lengthy introduction, most of the time Jefferson Jr. just hangs around, there being no reason for him to be included in the scenes where he appears.
Beatty's characters are, for the most part, police lineup chic. Winston and his friend Fariq-the kind of characters that James Q. Wilson might call "predators"-engage in loathsome activities. (In this book, black teens are "wolf packs" and are often located within "mugging distance" of passersby.) Winston is the sort of black male that people at the Manhattan Institute salivate over. The guy is a nasty piece of work. The opening scene finds Winston waking in an apartment that has been shot up by some crack dealers. He's there because he was hired as an enforcer for a rival of the shooters. He's also a chain snatcher, a knifer, and, when left to attend to some noisy children, knocks them out with chloroform. The plot centers around Winston's attempt to become a councilman. The plot never thickens-in fact, it becomes thinner as the book proceeds. His opting for a career in politics based on seeing a Eugene Debs poster and hearing a few sentences about his career, for example, seems forced, but will probably draw some chuckles from the neoconservatives who will champion this book-as will the attacks on the '60s, black nationalism, the Black Panthers, and black writing. The Nation of Islam, even the hip hop nation, those who helped Beatty into prominence before he was escorted uptown, come in for attacks as well.
"Sisterhood" literature also takes some hits (one of Yolanda's favorite books is entitled Sisters Doing It for Themselves-How to Masturbate to an African Orgasm), but, in some of the dialogue between Winston and Yolanda, the author shows that he is also capable of writing the kind of sappy lines that have Oprah-ized the black literary scene, through books in which saintly black women triumph over black male demons.
What salvages this book is the writing. Beatty has an extraordinary eye for detail, and the book reads like a Vermeer painting ("Fariq ran his tongue over his precious-metal-filled mouth, the front four incisors, top and bottom, capped in a gold-and-silver checkerboard pattern"). But good writing isn't enough. Beatty needs a vision. He sounds as if he's read Henry Louis Gates Jr., the "intellectual entrepreneur" and the "capitalist" who instructed black artists on how to become as rich as he. The formula seems to be that one writes nothing that would alienate white consumers, selling them guilt-free products like Gates's theory that it was Africans who engineered themselves across the Atlantic in the first place, while the slave ship captains looked on, helplessly.
Paul Beatty is already being hailed as the new Ralph Ellison, who was celebrated for leveling some of the same targets as Beatty. (At least Beatty avoided that old standby, black incest, which seems to rule the box office, with films like The Cider House Rules and Eve's Bayou.) Ellison was partied around by the New York literary crowd like a rare panda for 40 years. Paul Beatty could become the new Ralph Ellison, because in a New York where Don Imus and David Remnick are literary running buddies, this book will be hailed, not for its artistic form, but for its issues.
Another path for a brilliant young writer like Beatty is the one paved by his predecessors, Chester Himes, John O. Killens, and John A. Williams. While Beatty is being feted by tastemakers, Williams's new book, Clifford's Blues, has been ignored. It's about black inmates in German concentration camps, which a number of New York editors refused to believe existed in Nazi Germany. Paul Beatty has the talent and needs to explore new territory in the tradition of Himes, Wright, Williams, and Killens. He could heed Chester Himes's advice, "to think the unthinkable."
Ishmael Reed is the author of The Reed Reader and the publisher of Konch (http://www.ishmaelreedpub.com/).
Tuff By Paul Beatty
Knopf, 257 pp., $23
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