MAY 7, 2015
PAUL BEATTY MAY WELL BE the most bitingly incisive chronicler of Los Angeles society of the last quarter-century. He laid down his first picaresque portrait in 1996 with the Voltaire-meets-Iceberg Slim debut novel The White Boy Shuffle, a semi-autobiographical slapstick romp through the city’s apartheid demography. The now 52-year-old writer returns to his homeland in The Sellout, his brutally hilarious (or is it hilariously brutal?) new sendup of segregationist essentialism. Beatty’s prose assiduously traces the bus routes from Compton to Venice to Malibu like a veteran denizen of the city’s streets — despite the fact that he hasn’t lived in California during his entire life as a writer.
“I always tried,” he says somewhat sheepishly, his long body tucked into an armchair overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “I really don’t think of myself as a New Yorker; I definitely don’t.”
Once, Beatty even packed his belongings and drove cross-country from New York in his car (the mere fact he owns a car proves he’s more Angeleno than Manhattanite). But fate forced him to return to the Lower East Side for something — in his typically guarded way, he won’t reveal what; perhaps it was a gig, or a girl, or a toothbrush, or a book contract. The plane fares were too steep, and as he drove east, he realized: maybe he was never going to go back home.
Because Los Angeles is still Paul’s home, where his family lives and his imagination roves. He brings to his portraits of the urban landscape and its characters the intimate understanding of a native son and the critical perspective of an exile. If you want to understand the city of angels and devils, read Paul Beatty.
Beatty was born in Los Angeles General Hospital (he’s “pretty sure”) 52 years ago. He spent formative years in Venice, Santa Monica, and the Pico area and went to high school in the Valley — an integration experiment he parodies in White Boy Shuffle. He left to study psychology at Boston University. But he grew bored by the science of human behavior and interested in the poetry of it instead. Inspired by E. E. Cummings, he began writing free-form verse about his life and the lives of his 20-whatever friends. He dropped out of grad school and moved to New York to study with Allen Ginsberg and Louis Asekoff, earning his MFA from Brooklyn College. And he started reading his works out loud around the cafés and poetry haunts of New York.
I first met Paul by chance 25 years ago, when he was reading at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in the East Village. His poems were rambles through hip-hop slang, cartoon snippets, children’s rhymes, and baller boasts. He read off the page, awkwardly, one hand rubbing the top of his head as the other held the page, chuckling at his own jokes. Despite having since become one of the first big stars of the 1990s “spoken word” movement, Paul still reads this way.
After the St. Mark’s reading, Beatty sent me his poems — short works full of barbed puns and longer pieces dense with word play, with titles like “No Tagbacks” and “Verbal Mugging.” He had had a couple of pieces published, but was basically unknown. He said he was going to be reading in something called a “slam” at the newly reopened Nuyorican Poets Café in a couple weeks. I went, he won. Beatty went on to become the first-ever poetry slam champion of the Nuyorican and the subject of my first-ever feature for The Village Voice.
I became a chronicler of the guerrilla lit of the 1990s, and we became friends. Our mutual roots in Los Angeles — I, too, was a native in exile — helped us form a bond, I think. So did our mounting skepticism at the hype that was taking over the Downtown New York poetry scene. Paul and others taped segments for MTV. They toured the world as the Nuyorican Poets Live. They got scouted, labeled, offered deals, commodified. He named his first book, a collection of poems published by the Nuyorican, Big Bank Take Little Bank. That was followed by Joker, Joker Deuce (games are a favorite theme of the author). And than Beatty stopped writing poetry almost as quickly as he had started.
Instead, he turned his acid wit into prose. He has written four novels and edited Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor. For a few years in the mid-’90s, his alienation from the dollarocracy and embrace by German arts patrons drove him to Berlin, which became the setting for Slumberland, a novel about a DJ Spooky-like turntablist. We met up in 1996 in Prague, where Paul, my traveling companion Donna Gaines, and I trolled the beer and absinthe halls — three outsiders among the very tangible ghosts of European facism, pondering life after the Cold War.
In person, Paul Beatty is quiet, easygoing, loose-limbed, a bit of a big kid. Guided by a strong sense of personal ethics — a product of his deep familial base — he can be an intensely loyal friend, and he hates bullshit. He chuckles readily and, especially when you get a beer in him, tells hilarious stories, such as the one about his brush with Hollywood hackery while attempting to write for Warren Beatty (um, no relation). But he’s more of a listener than a talker, an observer than a performer. I’ve known him for a quarter-century, but there’s a lot I don’t know about Paul. He guards his privacy, and I respect that.
Beatty’s recent reading at Skylight Books was a homecoming of sorts. The prodigal son acknowledged the presence and influence of family members and childhood chums, whose daily experiences in the city, which he merely visits yearly, have helped inform his writing.
The Sellout is set in an inner-city rural neighborhood called Dickens. Yes, that’s right, an inner-city rural hood. There are rodeos, ranches, and orchards amongst the donut shops, and shootouts. The narrator is a farmer who nurtures exotic fruits, along with killer weed. Call The Sellout a ghetto pastoral.
“I try not to use that word at all,” Beatty says when asked if he cast The Sellout in the great literary tradition of the pastoral. “That was one of the hardest things about the book, trying to make that neighborhood feel real and a little bit fantastical at the same time; that was so hard to do.”
Beatty mixes the factual and the fanciful. The town name is made up (sly nods to the actual founder of Compton, Griffith Dickenson Compton, and to the father of social realist novels, Charles Dickens), and the setting may sound surreal, but in fact, Dickens is based on an actual Los Angeles area: Richland Farms, straight inside Compton. Yes, in the area made famous by Niggaz With Attitude and Kendrick Lamar — the town known worldwide as the home of gangs and gangsta rap — there are horses, goats, corn, and chickens. There really is a rodeo in Compton. Paul didn’t make that up.
But he made up a lot of other shit. Really funny, deeply sick shit, like the fake charter school populated by smiling white kids that the protagonist paints across the street from the real public school, inspiring a race to racially segregated achievement. Or Hominy Jenkins, the local kook who perpetually harkens back to his glory days as a child actor on Little Rascals, albeit one whose scenes always ended up on the cutting room floor. Beatty pokes deep inside racial fault lines and then twists his fingers, making the reader laugh and squirm, tickling until it hurts and we come out the other side, where it feels good again, like human touch. Sample laugh line: “Is it my fault that the only tangible benefit to come out of the civil rights movement is that black people aren’t as afraid of dogs as they used to be?” Or: “If you think about it, the only thing you absolutely never see in car commercials isn’t Jewish people, homosexuals or urban Negroes, it’s traffic.”
The linear, rather tangled plot follows the narrator (he is never named; Dickens is the main character here) in his effort to restore Dickens to the map, literally (it has disappeared). For reasons that may have to do with the amount of his own product the farmer smokes, he decides restoration is best accomplished by turning back the hands of times to the good ol’ days of slavery and segregation. Yes, the narrator is black. The narrative unfolds as a flashback, as our hero is dragged before the Supreme Court to defend his crimes against progress, and against the race.
The Sellout lands conspicuously, like a giant whoopee cushion, into 2015’s heated racial discourse. Beatty and his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, didn’t plan it that way; the book was finished a couple of years ago. His only goal was for it to be published while Barack Obama was still in office. The president makes a cameo, one of several African-American leaders whose, er, sellout-ness Beatty mocks, albeit while strategically leaving out letters of their names. Other victims of the author’s ire, or irony, are stated unequivocally: Dave Eggers and Banksy are among the public figures Beatty takes some damning potshots at.
The author says he purposely and carefully mixed fact and fiction. “I made this huge thing of staying away from time, names in general, places — you know, like a mix of real and not real,” he says. “So there’s part of that book that’s very concrete, like the bus lines. The old bus lines are really concrete […] but the street names are from all over the place, some made up, some just streets I wanted to stick in there. I think I didn’t want it to be like L.A.; I just wanted it to feel like it was L.A.”
The names may have been changed to protect … whoever … but Dickens is in some ways more like Compton than the existential gangland depicted in, say, Lamar’s new album, To Pimp a Butterfly. For one, it’s a predominantly Latino neighborhood; according to the 2010 census, Compton, a historically black neighborhood, is now 65 percent Hispanic, 32.9 percent African American. Beatty writes a hilarious scene where a Chicana character named Charisma Molina mutters, “Too many Mexicans.” The phrase prompts one of Beatty’s best riffs, about the blame that binds white and black Angelenos:
It’s a bromide for every unlicensed contractor tired of being underbid and refusing to blame their lack of employment on shoddy workmanship, nepotistic hiring practices, and a long list of shitty online references. Mexicans are to blame for everything. Someone in California sneezes, you don’t say “Gesundheit” but “Too many Mexicans.”
Paul says the phrase is a direct quote from a Mexican friend of his. “I try to talk about this stuff that reads black and white in a multicultural way,” he tells me.
People are doing Straight Outa Compton, and Compton’s a fucking Mexican-American community. But the power structure’s still all black. There’s also like a thing — that wasn’t a big deal but I didn’t want to skip, especially in a book that’s about how we operate amongst each other — about the fraction, the tension, between Latino and black communities.
The writer’s younger sister works in Compton, and a friend is a principal there. He mined them heavily for anecdotes and analysis. He also spent time at the Compton Public Library, doing research on the town and soaking up its vibe. Real events, such as Mayor Omar Bradley’s disbanding of the city’s police force in 2000 and ongoing corruption scandals, inspired the notion of the town’s disappearance. But, Paul says, The Sellout is not a book about Compton.
I’m not trying to show Compton. I don’t know Compton or particularly care about Compton, but there’s a weirdness to Compton that I’m trying to get at. It’s not just Compton; it’s L.A. too, there’s a special weirdness there.
The racial profiling of a historic neighborhood and its failures at self-governance are not the only targets in Beatty’s sights. I’m not even going to speculate on the real-world analogs for the literary scholar character named Foy Cheshire, who’s an intellectual thief and a foppish failure. After the Sellout’s dad is killed by cops, Cheshire takes over as head of the Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals. Paul zaps the racist insularity of the Billabong brotherhood by making his character that oddest of oddities — a black surfer — who explains the pass system of the beaches: “From Manhattan Beach down to Cabrillo, they called you nigger and expected you to run. El Porto north to Santa Monica, they called you nigger and expected you to fight. Malibu and beyond, they called the police.” Again, this is research on the author’s part; Paul’s not the surfing type.
Paul has begun working on a sort of sequel to Hokum: a historical collection of non-blacks writing about blacks:
It’s going to be interesting to see if the way that blacks are portrayed by others has changed or if it’s still the same. I’ve written a decent amount of stuff, not a ton, but it’s interesting so far, especially the really contemporary stuff is just so bizarre. It’s also about the freedom of who gets to write about whom, and in what way. For me, I learned — it’s going to sound bad — but I learned so much about what blackness was by reading other portrayals of myself in a weird way.
As eager as Beatty is to return West, he admits it’s better for him to fill his head here, then return East to process and produce. “It’s easy for me to write in New York,” says Beatty, who teaches at Columbia University. “The distance helps. I don’t have to be anywhere; I can shut myself in a little easier. I’m a little sharper in New York, maybe. Less healthy, maybe a little more depressed, but sharper.”