Into this mix came Beatty and his novel "The White Boy Shuffle," which in London quickly became a kind of guide for how to approach this new blackness: a blackness that allowed us to read Martin Heidegger, to argue that we liked Wallace Stevens better than Langston Hughes, to love action films despite their often-racist subtexts. We had begun to suspect that the blues, and necessarily jazz, were as much about joy as about sorrow, about gain as much as about loss.
The protagonist of the novel, DJ Darky, is a Los Angeles disc jockey who goes to Berlin to be a jukebox sommelier. He is in search of a virtuoso saxophonist, Charles Stone—nicknamed the Shuwa—who is in many ways his doppelganger. DJ Darky has created a sonic masterpiece, layering nearly every sound he can find into a flawless testament, a musical poem. Now, despite offers from the gangsta rap community, he wants the Shuwa to play some avant-garde mystical voodoo music over the beat.
"Slumberland" is laugh-out-loud funny in many places, and its wit and satire can be burning, regardless of where they are pointed—blackness or whiteness. The book places Beatty somewhere among Ishmael Reed, Dany Laferrière and William S. Burroughs, and it is rife with sex (particularly interracial sex as weapon, as guilt and celebration, but never as love), music (it is, in fact, a love poem to music as identity, as savior, as self, as the perfect language) and religion, whatever mask it wears.
Darky leaves Los Angeles not only to find the perfect beat but also the perfect seduction. He wants to be seen not through white America's eyes but through his own eyes, outside the weight of all the racial narratives that he has to filter in the U.S. Berlin, however, turns out to be just as fraught.
When Beatty describes Darky's incredible ear and his "phonographic memory"—an ability to recall every sound he has ever heard and when—he evokes a psychic and spiritual insight that speaks to the character's heart. Music, and Darky's relationship to it, becomes the place where Beatty argues for the soul of this one torn black man, making of him a kind of symphonic W.E.B. Du Bois.
And yet, "Slumberland" does have its faults, as all good novels must. There is no acknowledgment that Darky, with his musical gifts and near genius intelligence and recall, can and must figure out a different way to navigate the world. Beatty also doesn't acknowledge that Darky's power to so intelligently dissect his place in the world is a privilege many blacks do not carry.
At its core, "Slumberland's" sadness is that of a black man cast loose in a universe of whiteness, carrying the pure sorrow of never being seen, and an even deeper sorrow of not being able to see himself.
Los Angeles Times
By Paul Beatty
Bloomsbury, 244 pages, $24.99