Sunday, September 7, 2008

Black in Berlin: Paul Beatty's Slumberland

In the tumult of the last couple weeks at Richard Byrne Inc., it's been terrific to have a book on hand that completely rivets your attention away from the life at hand and pours it into something that's not merely diverting, but revelatory and even transformative.

For me, that book has been Paul Beatty's novel Slumberland -- which is a breathtaking mash-up of post-socialism and jazz, soul, funk. Stripping it down to plot, Slumberland is the tale of an L.A. DJ's immersion in pre-Wende Berlin and his effort to track down a legendary musician in that city with nothing but a postal address and an amazing song used as a soundtrack for a decidedly-bizarre porn film. (I'm not going to spoil the joke.)

But Slumberland is so much more than that It's a jukebox-driven juxtaposition of A sides and B sides: Berlin and L.A., white and black, East and West. It's smart, funny, sad and damning. And, yes, it's brilliant.

Beatty's kicked around for awhile in literary circles, breaking out of the Nuyorican poetry slam scene in the late 1980s. He's written two other novels -- The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Tuff (2001). And as fiction goes, Slumberland does have a poetry about it -- especially in the way that the novel's near-encyclopedic clutter of American black music's cultural signifiers surf Beatty's relentless prose rhythms and riffs. As his narrator, DJ Darky, observes early in the book:

Though I'm purportedly black-- and in these days of racial egalitarianism, a somebody--I'd never felt more white, more like a nobody. DJ Appropriate but Never Compensate. I was amanuensis Joel Chandler Harris ambling through the streets of Nigger Town looking for folklore to steal. I was righteous Mezz Mezzrow mining the motherlod of soul, selling gage in 125th Street, tapping my feet to Satchmo's blackest beats. I was Alan Lomax slogging tape recorder and plantatiuon dreams through the swamp grass misama looking to colorize the blues on the cheap. I was 3rd Bass's MC Serch making my own version of the gas face. A rhyme-tight, tornado-white, Hebrew Israelite, stepping down from the soapbox and into the boom box to spit his shibboleth.

is studded with such wonders of music criticism, turbocharged by plot and by a fierce moral indignation. The latter is cleverly masked by a surfeit of hipster swagger, but punches through particularly hard when it comes to politics:

Listening to America these days is like listening to the fallen King Lear using his royal gibberish to turn field mice and shadows into real enemies. America is always composing empty phrases like "keeping it real," "intelligent design," "hip-hop generation," and "first responders" as a way to disguise the emptiness and mundanity.

Slumberland is stuffed with anger, slang and hard-earned wisdom. It darkens perceptibly by the end but remains bouyant. And as snappy and sharp as Beatty's style is, the book is suffused with a certain tenderness, particularly in moments where Beatty does one of the hardest things that a writer can do: translate what music actually sounds like -- down to its very nooks and crannies -- into prose.

At one moment about a third of the way through Slumberland, Beatty's character DJ Darky talks about one of my favorite songs, Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments." It's a beautiful passage:

"Stolen Moments" is Oliver Nelson's signature tune, a song I find to be the ultimate mood setter; it's a classic jazz aperitif. Oftentimes, when I play hardcore underground hip-hop or punk gigs, after three or four especially rambunctious tunes the mosh pits begin to resemble the the skirmish lines of a Bronze Age battlefields, the warehouse windows start to shake, the record needle starts to skip, the women have that "I'm down with the pogrom" whatever-motherfucker look in their eyes, and I know the party is one more Wu-Tang killer bee sting or Bad Brains power chord from turning into Attica, I ply fifteen to twenty seconds of "Stolen Moments" to ease the tension, to keep the peace. Its incongruous beauty brings about the wry existential lugubriousness of the Christmas Eve carol coming from the enemy encampment on the other side of the river ina hackneyed war movie. "Stolen Moments" is that type of intrusion, a lull in the fighting, a time to finish that drink and forgive and forget.

Buy Slumberland at Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Powell's

No comments: