Though he was one of the first stand-out stars of the Nuyorican scene before the term “poetry slam” was a part of the zeitgeist. Though his work has been published consistently, though discretely, for the past twenty-plus years, and though his first book of poems, “Big Bank Take Little Bank”, simultaneously grabbed the attentions of Allen Ginsberg and Ice Cube. Is there an anymore slept on Black male American writer than Paul Beatty? The author of three books of fiction, two of poetry, and one anthology gets so little mention in the annals of contemporary literature. His latest novel, Slumberland, which has gained little notice as it has oozed its way into the collective unconsciousness, may give some clues to how the author has managed to walk the tight-rope between blowing up and going pop and have fun doing it.
DJ Darky is a sub-genius sommelier for a jukebox in a West Berlin Bar, Slumberland, a hot-spot for miscegenation between buxom German frauliens and Black expats shortly before the fall of the wall. He comes seeking his hero and potential co-signer to his perfect beat; an avant garde jazz musician known as “The Schwa”.
Within the first twenty pages, through Darky, Beatty calls all most all Black Male actors over the last two decades Uncle Toms, proclaims the death of Hip-Hop and declares Black people passé and obsolete. Somehow, these polemics do not come across as a pop-culture hodge-podge, but the back-story about one man’s search for perfection, love, and acceptance. And this is where we get our first clue towards Beatty’s warm receptions as a writer and scholar. For over twenty years, many Black American writers have been feeding sacred cows and bringing long-festering wounds to light. What has been woefully missing in the dialogue of Black letters is the power of satire. Beatty’s 2005 anthology, Hokum, shows him to be a studied master of black humor and radical imagination and Slumberland is laugh out loud funny. There are passages here that make me blurt out, like some people laugh at jazz concerts when an impresario pulls out an amazing aural stunt. I’m constantly impressed with this writer who’s not afraid to say NIGGER in all caps.
As the Berlin Wall falls, and secret agents and ragmen emerge, Beatty remains pitch perfect in his critique of Black/White America, Germany, and Western Civilization to date. So much so, that acerbic insight becomes commonplace and the “been there, done that” uber-hip-ness exuded by Darky and his growing cadre never comes off as smarmy or condescending. It’s this lack of self-seriousness that causes many readers to miss the serious intent of Beatty’s work. Since his first novel, White Boy Shuffle, there has been an apocalyptic foreboding, a sinister grin, a lonely ache for connection and validation that has permeated his work. There is a tension in Slumberland that recalls the monologues of Richard Pryor in his heyday; where folly and despair collide with race consciousness and self-destructive impulse causing us to relate to frailties so deeply that only laughter makes sense.
This is a fun book with more truth than most Americans can bear, though, like his previous novel, Tuff, Beatty can get lost in atmospheric description that distracts rather than emphasizes his scenes. In Slumberland, the description of the bar itself and the various characters who frequent it can serve as foils and the urge to skim becomes greatest during these passages, but it’s a small price to pay for the overall impact of Beatty’s wit, emotion and keen observation of human behavior in all of its fragility and pathos.
There is a confirmation in not only Slumberland, but Beatty’s entire body of work that, no, you’re not crazy. There are folks out here who see the same absurd shit you do.