Osvaldo's Reviews > The White Boy Shuffle

The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty
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Jun 02, 2012

it was ok
Read from June 02 to 07, 2012

I wanted to love this book. Thinking back on the elements of it that worked and the playful language that resonated with its themes and content, I still want to love this book. But, ugh. . . I just don't. I don't even really like it. I don't hate it. I guess I am mostly just severely disappointed with it.

There were moments, strong moments that I hoped would blossom into something more than a sketchy, jokey run through Gunnar's life, but they never developed. The prologue and introduction were so promising, a movement of African-American suicide poets? The potential is there for a really absurdist and yet moving commentary on the daily degradation of life in a racist country, but like everything else in this novel it is under-developed and wrapped in over-exagerated jokiness.

A word about that jokiness: I do get the humor. Humor is a way to deal with the absurdity of this life and the contradictions and conundrums and frustration of race relations. There were moments that made me laugh out loud and I appreciated those - but more often than not, the humor came off as trying too hard, as overly exagerated to the point of senseless caricature that in some cases felt like it was based on and reinforcing stereotypes (esp. when it involved any of the women characters who were even more superficially sketched out than anyone else - I mean, Gunnar's two sisters that do nothing but get beat up in one scene and then re-appear in a letter home referring to news of their teenaged pregnancy? the mail-order Japanese bride? C'mon).

But when the humor works it does work, and I think with some more editing a few more drafts this could have made this one of the best novels I ever read (though basically it reads to me like not only a first novel (which it is), but a first draft). The oral history of Gunnar's Uncle Tomming self-hating ancestors was hilarious, his characterization of basketball camp had me rolling. But I kept thinking, so what?

For a book called White Boy Shuffle was looking for there to be more reflection on that double-consciousness of the double not-belonging-ness - or at least the struggle to belong - but like everything else in this book it was hardly explored. I was looking for some reflection on Gunnar's family history of self-effacing negroes that at least sought to understand the internalized self-hatred that his father, the LAPD sketch artist who uses his own features as guidelines for drawing the criminals being described, exemplifies. I was looking for something more about Gunnar's arrested sexual development that might touch on the interplay of race and models of masculinity. I was looking for something about how his best friend Nick's love of jazz might make him an outsider in a youth culture seemingly predicated on historical erasure while simultaneosly repurposing, reappropriating, remixing. . . Instead, I struggled to understand his suicide, not because suicide seems to extreme a reaction, but rather because there was no sense of what he (in particular) was reacting to.

I wanted tension. The kind of tension that leads to that self-conscious shuffle the novel's title suggest, but got none of it.

For me the most potentially interesting part (after the family history) was when Gunnar was back at a mostly white school (a experience I can relate with), but Beatty does very little with this. He writes, "If you want to raise the consciousness of an inner-city colored child, send him to an all-white high school." That re-entry alone, after his surfer/skater dude young life interupted by Hillside ghetto politics could have been the whole novel, but of course it is diluted with over-the-top jokey bullshit. Gunnar's experience with college recruitment and different extra-curricular ethnic student organizations at BU could have been the heart of the novel, but instead we are to believe his suicidal poetic consciousness movement spring extemporaneously while he is giving a speech.

What a waste.

The thing I will say about this book is that it does make me want to try out other books by Paul Beatty to see if he developed as a writer who can spend some time with ideas, develop some of his intriguing and weird characters, and put that exceptionally strong voice and penchant for humor to work opening up a field of questions even if it gives no answers.
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Reading Progress

06/03/2012 page 44
02/29/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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N-rose I can tell you this: you REALLY won't like his second novel, Tuff. Maybe you'll like his poetry.

message 2: by Raven (new) - added it

Raven Rakia in my opinion, the more he writes - the more he develops, I think you should read his most recent novel: Slumberland. Still not perfect but it's definitely worth the read...

Osvaldo Raven wrote: "in my opinion, the more he writes - the more he develops, I think you should read his most recent novel: Slumberland. Still not perfect but it's definitely worth the read..."

I have read it and written a review! Check it out.

Susan Although I really liked this book and gave it 4 stars, I agree with most of what you have written in this review. Does that make sense?

Osvaldo Stars are kind of arbitrary - I never know how many stars to give things, that's why most of my reviews are so long. :)

Susan Long reviews are great! Helps me to decide if this is the sort of book I want to read at the moment. There are lots of great books that just don't match my current reading mood.

Paul Frandano A fair review and a civilized thread of commentary afterward. Beatty is brilliant, learned, rhetorically inventive, wildly imaginative, and yet..and yet...the books was for me a slog, with long stretches of Beatty determined to load each sentence with a wisecrack, punctuated by ambush-bursts of manic, calculatedly indelicate comedy. Sure, I laughed out loud. But, as you point out, Beatty doesn't fulfill the contract he makes with his readers in the title and the prologue (and the hilarious history lesson of chapter 1). Surprised he's been around for 25 years and that I only heard of him after release of The Sellout. I'll continue to read him

Emily I totally see where you are coming from, although I truly loved this novel. To grasp how Beatty actually does address the tensions, etc. that you felt he fell short on, I would recommend checking out the paper "Punked for Life: Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle and Radical Black Masculinities" by L.H. Stallings. It does a great job working through the purpose and subtext of the satire and humor.

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