I'm also totally tired and probably not going to do this book much justice, which is too bad. Here's the thing that's especially ironic about me saving this one for last: it's a book of essays, weaving together a look at how the individual life of the author (he's the theater critic for the New Yorker) is shaped and informed by pop culture.
In other words, it's impossible for me not to read this as a companion to our current David Foster Wallace situation. In fact, White Girls was blurbed by John Jeremiah Sullivan, who I mentioned the first time we talked about DFW. I said that JJS was an example of an essayist I really enjoyed, a guy who was genuinely interested in his work rather than just a smug East Coast asshole. In his blurb, he says that Als is working in the genre of "culture-crit-as-autobiography" and that is exactly right. Als is gathering up his observations about film, theater, books and thinking about how it intersects with his life; DFW is arguably doing the same thing.
But here's the thing: Als' book is better in every. single. fucking. way.
It's clear and incisive without being overwritten. It's arguments are cogent and fierce instead of meandering and boring. It's interesting and smart without with smarmy and self-satisfied. It looks at people of all kinds-- gay, straight, men, women, people of color, old, young, urban, rural North, South---instead of just focusing on the insular view of a particular kind of smug white man. In fact, Als' personal lens is consciously and explicitly that of the outsider: gay and black in America. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates, he's not interested in sugar-coating his writing for a white audience. But I do love how he constantly shifts his lens as he examines the world around him: gay, black, male, New Yorker, younger, older, critic, fan. He's one of those writers who just thinks about the world in an interesting, dynamic way. He strikes me as the kind of person I would want to be my friend--and the fact that he has such a generous, curious spirit would totally make up for the fact that he's way smarter than I am. Like, I know he'd be slumming it a little with me, but it'd be worth it to hang out with someone that funny and smart. I'd totally be his Native Companion, know what I mean?
The essays themselves cover a variety of topics, and even if I don't know much about the topics, Als writing makes me more interested in the topic, not less. There are essays here about Truman Capote, Flannery O'Conner, and Eminem; there are essays about his life-long best friend and about his inability to write about his own mother. I would fiercely agree with him on one page, be amazed at his ability to capture something true about life I'd never noticed on another, and sort of pissed off and thinking he's totally wrong on yet another. In other words, his arguments are actually argumentative! Even more astounding, his arguments and ideas are easily followed and clearly laid out. WHAT A CONCEPT!
My one real regret is that I wish I wasn't reading it this way. I'm just sort of burning through it all, wanting to hit my deadline. And I also wish I wasn't doing Als the disservice of comparing him to that jackass DFW.
All I can do, really is quote some Eminem lyrics that Als quotes when talking about Eminem's self-awareness of his own status as a white rapper:
Look at these eyes, baby blue, baby just like yourself, if they were brown, Shady lose, Shade sits on the shelf, but Shady's cute, Shady knew, Shady's dimples would help, make ladies swoon baby, ooh, baby, look at my sales, let's do the math, if I was black, I would have sold half.
One thing that this has made me pledge: to no longer skip his stuff in the New Yorker. I don't usually read his pieces because it's weird for me to read reviews of stuff I haven't seen or can't see---Although this is silly, because I read book reviews of books I haven't read all the time. Either way, now I realize I've been missing a great thinker and am going to try to do better.
To Hilton Als! An essayist that doesn't drive me to drink!