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BOOK REVIEW

'City Kid' by Nelson George

It's his early days dreaming of the future, not the later name-dropping success, that make this memoir interesting.

April 19, 2009|Erin Aubry Kaplan | Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times' Opinion pages.

City Kid

A Writer's Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success

Nelson George

Viking: 248 pp., $25.95

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Nelson George is a true hyphenate -- journalist, music critic, cultural critic, filmmaker, novelist -- whose many endeavors have met with more or less equal success in his nearly 30-year career. George's strong suit has always been putting his heart and personal convictions into his authorial voice, making potentially academic analyses of race and other matters accessible while at the same time reminding us that analyses of race are no substitute for the power and complexity of black experience itself. As this author of a respected book on Motown history might say, ain't nothing like the real thing.

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A goal-oriented person

His new book, "City Kid: A Writer's Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success," is therefore, something of a letdown. It covers a lot of bases -- all of George's life -- but ultimately doesn't drill very deep and lacks his characteristic passion. It could be that George's genius is in his writing about music and culture, not himself. Still, I was surprised that many of the descriptions are primary-color and that the narrative, though often entertaining and even poignant, noncommittal. Often he follows trenchant observations with flippancy that feels jarring. Explaining why an aunt relocated to L.A. from Louisiana in 1952, he writes: "There were jobs in the factories open to blacks, and she found the whites, while largely racist, were too busy enjoying the surf to be interested in lynchings." Though there's some general truth in that, it's more of a good sound bite -- which George admits he became very practiced at, as a TV pundit -- than anything else.

I must confess that I bristled at George's whole take on Los Angeles, which is predictably East-Coast centric. He is careless with a few details -- he calls Wilmington Avenue, in Watts, Wilmington Boulevard. Worse, he fails to see any irony of flying into riot-torn L.A. in 1992 and worrying mostly about a clear passage down La Cienega to the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood (fortunately, he reports, everything seemed "normal" in that part of town). He sits atop the hotel, sipping cranberry juice and marveling at the smoky skyline; he seems to have less empathy for the burning neighborhoods below than an interest in making this apocalypse fodder for his next music-urban history project. As an observer of black music and its close connection to black social conditions and as an observer of the growing scene of West Coast gangsta rap that was being sensationalized by white America even at its inception, George should have had more to say. I expected more.

Perhaps I was expecting too much. Born in 1957, George is a product of the first generation of blacks to mature immediately after the civil rights era. The window of opportunity seemed suddenly thrown open, and George is ready to take advantage. Full of ambition and determined above all to make his mark -- in his case, as a music writer and artistic impresario -- he is self-absorbed almost by necessity. This is a black generation that has an unprecedented opportunity to invent itself, and George is perfectly suited to the task. He does come to it prepared. He lives out the classic American myth of bootstrap success, with a racial twist: Growing up barely working-class in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, he educates himself constantly about music, criticism and literature so that he can ultimately best the white boys at the game they've owned for too long. George admits he did this obsessively, because he not only loved writing and music but also felt a kind of panic about not doing it: In the early 1980s, as his career was just getting underway, he says he tossed in his sleep, worrying that some white writer out there was working harder than him, always a few steps ahead. "I don't think I was at rest the entire decade," he recalls.

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