Deadly signifyin’

Paul Beatty’s poetic novel delivers Harlem life without illusions.

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The New York Times called White Boy Shuffle, Paul Beatty’s first novel, “a blast of satirical heat … of enormous energy and verbal dazzle.” His new novel, Tuff, opens with the obligatory corpses which jumpstart events in a classical whodunit, but the similarities stop there. End of the line. Come on, people, off my bus! When Winston Foshay, a 19-year-old black man called Tuffy by his posse, narrowly escapes an ugly, drug den shootout in East Harlem, he couldn’t care less about false trails, wrong suspects and other lame-ass jigsaw pieces played out in the overheated parlors of mystery writers.

Our hero, neither Shaft nor Ghost Dog, has other pressing concerns, all tied to the notion of balance in the trapeze act he performs daily on the street corners of Spanish Harlem. In fact, the 320-pound pork rind and Thirstbuster lover is rehearsing an epiphany no “poetics of murder” expert could have ever foreseen. Returning home after the cinematic brush with death on Page 1 — which leaves his boss and three “soulless young outlaws” bullet-ridden and leaking brain tissue — Winston greets his baby boy with a casual, “What up, little nigger?” But already the fluid mechanics of change hail him as he watches plugs for Big Brothers of America on TV.

Beatty’s bigger-than-life protagonist boasts a perfect ghetto pedigree, with his first offense for underage drinking at 8 and real Riker’s Island arrest at 13, where his ex-Black Panthers absentee father just happens to be sitting, “playing toilet-paper checkers on a bunk underneath the clock.” The father-son game gets one ringing line: “Fuck you. King me, bitch.” Drugging and thugging, “putting niggers in comas,” Tuff’s life might sound like the generic thumping lyrics of a gangsta rap song or America’s embodiment of racist paranoia: “Winston slipped upstream, an urban alligator skimming the swamp’s surface, eyes peeled for prey.”

But that would be to listen with only one ear or read the always already known plot Beatty is quick to obviate. The author complicates the pattern by outfitting his character with a series of remarkable contradictions, tension lines and, deadliest of them all, the self-awareness that slowly will push Tuffy into trip-wiring the old cage. Here’s another take on a father-son conversation the newly awakened hero delivers to his sleeping child:

You know, little nigger, you was almost fatherless today? A hot second away from growing up to be one of those hard-to-handle motherfuckers. Having to listen to your mother whine, “Oh, ever since your daddy died you’ve been impossible.” Yeah, I saved you from much grief. You’d be crying at night, cursing me because I left you. But I ain’t going nowhere, dog. I got a plan to get my shit together. Put all my caca in one big pile.

It’s that last sentence, with its disarmingly funny translation into baby idiom which secures the father’s promise to mend his ways, because he’s “tired of being one of those bummy Raisin in the Sun niggers.”

Jumping bail on racial stereotypes and “essentialist negritude” as Winston’s wacky, dreadlocked atheist, African-American Jewish rabbi, Spencer, refers to it, is like speaking a foreign language to your pals:

I be wanting to stomp them fools. Why you got ask me for drugs — I look like a dealer because I’m black? Nadine frowned. “But you was dealing, Tuffy.” That makes it all the worse. I am the stereotype, angry about being stereotyped.

This very knowledge constitutes the nodal point of Beatty’s writing practice: Like a guerrilla tactician, a New York version of Gen. Giap, the novelist has maneuvered Winston Foshay into a place of crisis, a place for questions. Asked why he called Big Brothers, Tuffy tells Spencer: I guess I really called because I’m looking for someone to explain shit. I don’t understand nothing about life, me, nothing. Kind of like someone to say, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch ...” Yeah.

Since Beatty is suspicious of every ism that lands on folks like some nasty virus, we won’t even dare suggest “existential” for fear of being skinned alive by his corrosive wit, still shaking with guilty laughter at the riotous dis he reserves for surrealism, beat poetry, his father’s poetic tributes to Coltrane, to name a few of his targets: After listening to you clowns write about his shit, I can’t stand his music. Whenever I hear one of his tunes I think about your bullshit poetry. Y’all must be killing the nigger’s record sales.

Contrary to Hollywood fare which reduces the necessity of conveying a protagonist’s social milieu to a few trivial props slapped onto the set with the ingenuity of a home-ec class — “Let’s put a drunk by this garbage can” and voilà! — Beatty’s engagement can be read by the deep focus within which he frames his subject matter. Like an extension of himself, the motley group behind Winston Foshay allows the reader to discern the pattern, to gain entry into the vantage point whence meaning issues.

If all the world’s a stage, the stoop at 258 East 109th Street was (his) proscenium of Ghetto tragedy, the omniscient narrator Shakespearizes quite apropos. The “tough love,” dear to some of Toni Morrison’s fictions, braces Tuffy’s homies like a fire wall, giving even the lame Fariq “Smush” Cole, his main dog, an edge that turns his handicap into a supplement of sharpness. Like a band of gypsies, this ragtag crew of Harlemites views the world from their site-specific condition, from their wounds, from their differences.

That Tuff is a virtuoso polyrhythmic composition in which even a very minor character is etched with astounding vivacity — Moneybags, “the proud CEO of nothing,” reduced to hawking cough syrup — dawns on us early in the text as we breathlessly follow the peripatetic mofo on his rounds, whether he be canvassing the Tombs for his upcoming election or whether he be stuffing his mouth with a cold chicken flauta.

What takes slightly longer to notice is that the massive-scale critique of simple-minded slogans and voluntaristic do-good politics that pass for struggle is so accurate, it hurts. Sharpened by Pryor-inspired humor, Beatty’s language whips our complacencies, our weak-kneed ministrations, our half-assed regrets with ferocious beauty and understanding.

This is no easy-listening hip hop in da city. To steal one of Tuffy’s fave raves, “this is real.” A must-read for all ages. Don’t let the movie get there before you.

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