Sweet talk and fighting words

Don't call Paul Beatty 'street-smart'. It's his language and imagination that deserve enough respect.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Paul Beatty scratches his shaved head and sighs. "Well, I'm black and I'm a writer and so, yes, I am a black writer. But I also have big feet and wear glasses."

Paul Beatty scratches his shaved head and sighs. "Well, I'm black and I'm a writer and so, yes, I am a black writer. But I also have big feet and wear glasses."

For readers eager to catch a glimpse of the African-American ghetto, Beatty poses something of a problem. On the one hand, he does write raw and urgent novels dripping with urban angst. His characters do wrestle with issues of ethnic invisibility, economic dispossession and street-level survival. On the other, he actively resists the claims of "authenticity" and "hard-core realism" usually attendant upon such writing.

Beatty flaunts the fact that his work is crafted, imagined, as fictional as any other American novel. There are those who want him to be a front-line warrior, a literary rapper who walks it like he talks it. Beatty's response is to ask, "Why should I be expected to be The Real Thing? Who has decided that I should be the spokesman for the whole black experience? I'm interested in contradictions, but that doesn't mean that I have any responsibility to come up with any resolutions. I've had reviewers being angry with me for failing to solve the entire race issue single-handedly."

Contrary to the homeboy-hype of his publishers, Paul Beatty was born into a respectable family in West Los Angeles. His mother is an artist, his father a civil rights activist, and he recalls his childhood as "being very nurturing of anything creative". He majored in psychology at the University of Boston before going on to do post-graduate work in Brooklyn.

He also enrolled in a creative writing course and began writing poetry. One of his tutors was Allen Ginsberg, who likened his work to the music of Miles Davis. The admiration was not reciprocal, and Beatty remains tactfully reticent about the ageing Beat's tutelage. It is not difficult to see why.

Unlike the earnest mysticism of Ginsberg's howls, Beatty's voice opted for a laconic irony, spartan staccato parodies of writerly sincerity and po-faced politics ("you can almost hear the refrains of/ 'please let my people go'/with a basso so profundo/ you can almos' feel/ the pat of patronisation/ on top yo' head"). But it was in performance that his verse truly came alive. His delivery had all the iconoclastic energy of a Richard Pryor routine - baiting, baffling, teasing his audience into the discomfort of self-recognition.

It was this mixture of cartoonish anarchy and poetic precision that propelled his debut novel, The White Boy Shuffle. Over three years in the writing, it was a high-octane parody of black aspirations and racial dyslexia. Its hero, Gunnar Kaufman, is a basketball whizz-kid whose father works for the LAPD and whose mother wants to "teach" him how to be "more black". He moves from Santa Monica privilege to inner-city alienation, taking with him a cast that includes the Gun Totin' Hooligans, an Asian mail-order bride, a crossbow-carrying sidekick and a co-player who is obsessed with the legacy of Yukio Mishima.

This was LA-LA Land run riot, a world of everyday Dadaism in which every stereotype was affirmed, abandoned, re-aligned and disenfranchised. Here was the black Bildungsroman spun around with surreal abandon, as though Richard Wright's Native Son was enacted by the Marx brothers. Although it was the Rodney King riots that provided the book's dénouement, it was language itself that gave the drama catharsis. Beatty's ear for patois - the inventive cruelty of "the dozens", the musical rhythms of swearing, the semantics of obscenity - meant that the novel's terse realism was played off against the metaphorical flourish of its dialogue.

"I think that my training as a poet has helped my novels enormously," says Beatty. "I'm fascinated by the secret codes of language, of how a word can perform somersaults depending upon how it is used and who is using it.

"I guess 'nigger' and 'boy' are the most obvious examples. They function in so many different registers. No one dared call me a boy even when I was seven years old. But in my adolescence 'boy' could express being tight with someone, like you were their brother. My friends sometimes refer to white men as 'niggers', by which they mean a certain frame of mind and life experience. It's a very rich area, the place where culture, race and power find some kind of playground. Or maybe a battleground."

It is ironic, then, that the title of his new novel, Tuff (Secker & Warburg, £10), was going to be prefaced by the word "Nigger". "My publishers went crazy," laughs Beatty, "they kept saying that Tuff was such a likeable character and they couldn't understand why I would want to bad-mouth him. But the whole point is that calling him a 'nigger' isn't necessarily bad-mouthing him. It's about getting inside a character's self-perception, self-definition, analysing the way in which they interact with the world around them. Anyway, it wasn't worth the fight. People who will read the book will hopefully get the point just the same."

The eponymous hero of Tuff is the 320-pound head of a crew of Harlem no-hopers. Again his posse is a kind of Three Stooges outfit, vaudevillian outlaws who move between comic-book incompetence and dazzling verbal dexterity. When a cheque-book Marxist offers to fund his campaign, Tuffy agrees to run for city council. Throw in his desire to become a sumo wrestler, adoption into a Big Brother programme by an African-American rabbi, and the responsibilities of marriage to a woman whom Tuff wed while he was in prison, and Beatty is once more able to explore the area in which social hardship rubs an uneasy shoulder with goofball slapstick. The metaphors hit you like a verbal mugging, while the dialogue remains as deadly as a drive-by shooting. Beatty is firmly in control of his material, although he claims that "It is the characters who determine the plot. Once I've imagined them and listened to how they speak, the rest of their story almost writes itself. My job is to introduce them to each other, but once they have been set in motion, it is like they know where they are headed before I do.

"This is what annoys me when people tell me that my work is 'street-smart'. How would they know? I'm not even sure. Of course I do research and scribble down observations, but just because I'm a black writer writing about black characters doesn't mean that I'm producing autobiography. 'Street-smart' is one of those back-handed compliments, because it also implies a lack of imagination."

It is this preference for imagination over experience, for speech as poetry rather than propaganda, that makes Beatty's such a fresh voice in African-American letters. He takes the badass posture of the gangsta and manages to ironise its machismo, while maintaining its swagger. He is neither blind to race, nor blinded by it.

Paul Beatty is a black writer, and a compellingly good one at that. But he also has big feet and wears glasses.