Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Review: "The White Boy Shuffle" by Paul Beatty

Much like he did with his latest novel, last year’s The Sellout, Paul Beatty, with his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, gives us a thrilling and sometimes chaotic novel that uses side-splitting humor to dissect sensitive racial issues. Beatty is among a group of contemporary black authors who seem to be taking cues from writers more like Walter Mosley than Richard Wright, providing stories that are unique and grab your attention long enough to thrill you and make you think about the sad ideas they present through a sometimes humorous and sometimes horrifying lens. Book’s like Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville and possibly the best example I came across last year, James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods immediately came to mind while reading this novel. While The Sellout is more mature than this novel, with the protagonist here, young Gunnar Kaufman being a younger version of the unnamed narrator in The Sellout, I feel I will remember this novel a bit better. As I read on, laughing and crying in equal measure, I was a bit stunned that one author I kept recalling was none other than Chuck Palahniuk, with this hapless, overly intelligent under motivated central character being very similar to the ones in Survivor and Lullaby from all those years ago. But besides those comparisons, all totally subjective, this book stands on its own for its themes and the original way they are presented. At the beginning of the novel, we watch as Gunnar Kaufman, a black kid more at home on the beach than in the ghetto, struggles to find his place amongst his family and friends, all trying to push him in directions he doesn’t want to go in. His parents are divorced, with his dad being a cop and his mom being horribly misguided, devising a ghoulish plan to move him and his two sisters from the suburbs and into the ghetto. He has two main friends, Scoby, an amateur black revolutionary and Psycho Loco, a local hood who really earns his name and eventually a mail-order bride from Asia. He finds something akin to solace in his gift for writing poetry and his skills on the basketball court, each of which, as he gets older, bring with them mixed feelings of satisfaction and wanting, leading to personal loss and very public fame for Gunnar. The story is quick, and it is made even quicker by Beatty’s prose and dialogue, which are heavily influenced by his time as a slam poet, and gives everything a hyper realistic sense of some crazy truths we can’t quite put our finger on. Kaufman, like the man in The Sellout, refuses to be defined by his race, which makes him something of a target for those who he meets who are actually racist and those of his own who use race as a crutch to avoid responsibility. Whether this book offends you or enlightens you, it is a very entertaining and alive introduction to very impressive modern writer. 
Rating: 5/5

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