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Trying to Stay Ahead of the Hype Machine

Books: Paul Beatty's 'The White Boy Shuffle,' an offbeat coming-of-age novel set in L.A. before, during and after the '92 riots, may be his ticket to hometown fame. Just don't attach any sort of label to it--or him.

July 10, 1996|BRIAN ALCORN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The hype machine has Paul Beatty by both feet.

At 34, with two volumes of poetry, MTV cult-hero status and now a volcanic debut novel to his credit, he has been delivered via conveyor belt into the gaping maw of the Acme Bard Processor.

When he squirts out the other side, box-shaped and bound in twine, his handsome mug frozen in comic surprise, what label will be stuck to his forehead? The poet laureate of Generation X? The vengeful prophet of alienated African American malehood? Or, as Newsweek would have it, "the premier bard of hip-hop"?

Paul Beatty, as if he had any say in the matter, would appreciate it if it said "Paul Beatty."

"People keep telling me, 'You've got to have some kind of slogan or sound bite, something people will remember,' but I don't get into that," he said in a recent interview. "It doesn't mean anything. The 'hip-hop' thing is so overdone. All it means is that you're black."

A West L.A. native who grew up in the shadow of the Santa Monica Freeway near La Cienega, Beatty has established himself as a fixture on the New York poetry scene. His reputation for streetwise poems teeming with rowdy humor, pop-culture references and focused rage grew with appearances on MTV's spoken-word specials, but he has yet to make a big splash in his hometown.

That should change, thanks to "The White Boy Shuffle" (Houghton Mifflin), a bombastic coming-of-age novel set in L.A. before, during and after the '92 riots.

The book's narrator is Gunnar Kaufman, the progeny of several generations of Kaufman men who distinguished themselves throughout American history as first-order cowards, Uncle Toms and sellouts.

Gunnar grows up as a skateboarding nerd in Santa Monica, a "funny, cool black guy" who can't dance, memorizes the design specifications of the German Luftwaffe and doesn't much lament the fact that the only black face in his dreams is his own.

When Gunnar and his sister refuse to go to an all-black summer camp because "they're different from us," his mother moves the family into the 'hood. There, Gunnar befriends Nicholas Scoby, a jazz freak and schoolyard basketball legend who never misses a shot, and Psycho Loco, the sensitive-yet-homicidal leader of the inept neighborhood gang, the Gun Totin' Hooligans.

He also becomes "so black, it's a shame." He gives up his skateboard to slam-dunk a basketball. In one memorable scene, he visits a black Harvard recruiter at the recruiter's hilltop home. After seeing the "advantages" of an Ivy League education, including a motor home and a white wife, Gunnar uses the recruiter's expensive mountain-climbing gear to rappel back down to the ghetto.

Along the way to an apocalyptic ending, Beatty takes a revisionist aim at every noble head in the African American pantheon--from Crispus Attucks to Booker T. Washington. Afrocentricism, multiculturalism, political correctness and urban chic all take mortal hits, along with more conventional targets such as police abuse, hypocritical rap stars, prep sports and white liberal angst.

"The White Boy Shuffle" should come with earplugs. It's a loud novel, and the predominant sound is the explosion of stereotypes. Take, for example, Mrs. Kim, a half-Korean, half-African American grocer so anguished over the King-cop verdicts that she firebombs her own store. Or Scoby, Beatty's Dean Moriarty and the book's real hero, whose absolute perfection with a basketball gradually turns his once-fawning fans against him.

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Like Kurt Vonnegut Jr., whose "Breakfast of Champions" is one of Beatty's favorite novels, "White Boy Shuffle" has the uncanny ability to make readers want to laugh and cry at the same time. Beatty mingles horrific reality with wild fancy without ever losing a grip on his story. This is a paragraph from Beatty's cinematic description of the riots:

"The Wonder Bread truck slid to a stop 10 feet in front of Scoby and me like a huge shuffleboard disk, its engine sputtering and wheels spinning. The driver scrambled out of the cab. Before he could bolt into the street, I slammed him against the side of the truck. Bug-eyed with fear, he babbled something about having 'never done nothing to nobody.' I'd never seen anyone afraid of me. I wondered what my face looked like. Were my nostrils flaring, my eyes pulsing red? I was about to shout 'Ooga-booga' and give the guy a heart attack when Scoby clambered from the rear of the truck, chewing on a cupcake and holding loaves of bread. Our captive dropped to his knees, begging for mercy. He took out his wallet and showed us pictures of his kids, as if they were for sale. I took a doughy satchel and swung it at his face, striking him solidly in the cheek. I know it didn't hurt, but the man whimpered in shame and resigned himself to the beating. Nicholas and I pummeled him silly with pillows of white bread until it snowed bread crumbs."

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