A lot can go down in a week. Last Thursday I read a blog post by Annalemma editor, Christopher Heavener about Paul Beatty’s Slumberland (read that post HERE). I was intrigued because of the mention of two of my favorite contemporary writers, Chabon and Lethem, but also because of Heavener’s passion for Beatty’s work. Working at a bookstore gives me the very dangerous benefit of being able to order books on a whim, and this is what I did. So Slumberland got here on Tuesday and I finished it yesterday afternoon. Then I went and made sure to thank Christopher Heavener.
I’m not going to analyze Slumberland, I’m pretty much past trying to sound intelligent. It was hard enough to fake through school. But what I liked about Beatty’s writing is his balance between elegance and being crude. While there might at one moment be a beautiful sentence the next there might be something about chicken fucking (no joke). And this is real life. Nothing is ever 100% in either direction, it’s a big messy mishmash of all of it. That’s what makes Beatty brilliant.
Not to mention that the whole book is basically about wanting to be un-hip. Beatty starts the book saying:
“You would think they’d be used to me by now. I mean, don’t they know that after fourteen hundred years the charade of blackness is over? That we blacks, the once eternally hip, the people who were as right now as Greenwich Mean Time, are, as of today, as yesterday as stone tools, the velocipede, and the paper straw all rolled into one?”
And the brilliant thing is that the whole book is about the main character, DJ Darky’s quest for the perfect beat. And of course what is the perfect beat? Well, damn straight it’s going to be inherently hip. But for DJ Darky to be passe is hip. It’s a line Beatty waltzes the whole damn way.
My favorite passage in the whole book comes about two-thirds through, when DJ Darky, living in Berlin at this point, is asked what America is really like:
“…I once heard a comedian say that if you put an apple on television every day for six months, and then placed that apple in a glass case and put that on display at the mall, people would go up to it and say Oooh, look, there’s that apple that’s on television. America’s a lot like that apple.”
I always think it’s interesting to read the quotes on a book, and generally I refer to them off an on as I make my way through. There was one that really annoyed me from the Los Angeles Times. They said, “Beatty is a kind of symphonic W.E.B. DuBois.” Really? This isn’t some philosophical treatise it’s a jazz poetry as prose, it’s a goddamn novel, and I’ve read DuBois and he didn’t write fiction and he certainly wasn’t concerned with any of the themes here other than the broad topic of race.
Luckily there was also this quote from the Washington Post: “What Gore Vidal did for sex and gender constructs, Beatty does for race and prominent black Americans, with sacred cow-tipping on nearly every page.” Now this is a quote you can take to the bank.
Sure there are always going to be the comparisons guided by Beatty’s ethinicity. It’s inevitable. But DuBois? I’d go more in the direction of saying Beatty feels like a bastard love child of Bukowski and Langston Hughes. Try printing that comparison on a book cover. I was also reminded of Kwame Dawes and Kevin Young, but also of Lou Reed and even a bit of Bob Dylan.
But it doesn’t matter who someone writes like, or they might remind you of. What matters is whether they write well, and Beatty does that. And more. I can’t wait to read his other books.
Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, changed oil, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic's shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed an independent children's bookstore. He now works in marketing. His latest book is Nothing but the Dead and Dying, a collection of stories set in Alaska. He lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons.