I plunged into this book unsuspectingly and was hauled up practically immediately by the sheer number of cultural references I just didn’t get. When it became clear that I needed to know whether 1) Dickens was/had been a real place in California (Answer: No, apparently, the “real Dickens” is Compton, founded by Griffith Dickenson Compton, says a helpful review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and they should know); 2) The Little Rascals really existed (Answer: Yes), I looked up both of these points. Then for a while, I furiously highlighted many other seemingly less important references, saving them for a book club discussion, as said book club comprises mostly US nationals including two Californians. I eventually gave up, there was just too much stuff I didn’t get and I was spending more time highlighting than reading. (For the record, based on the highly significant sample of a handful of people, it turns out you get quite a few of the references if you’re from California, some of them if you’re from the US and none if you fall into neither category.) So once I accepted I was going to be missing some of the flavour and some of the jokes – there was still plenty to laugh about and/or squirm – I followed Me, the hero of the story, his campaign to put Dickens back on the map, essentially by re-segregating the area.
The book is savage, biting, acid, witty, in-your-face provocative, all those things and yes, funny. I found the style too breathless and madcap for my liking but I did engage in the novel sufficiently to be interested in what happened next in Dickens, to Me, former Lil’ Rascal Hominy, on-and-off girlfriend Marpessa and to the Wheaton Academy. Yet my emotions were only really aroused a couple of times: I felt revulsion at Me’s behaviour with Hominy, the fact that he’s basically “looking out for him” being a poor excuse for inhumanity. I also went through a moment of something between acute cringing and sympathy for the couple turfed out of the comedy show because “This shit ain’t for you!” That anecdote encapsulated a lot of the skill of the book: pointing out absurdities, sending out an uncomfortable message and also its major flaw in my view: we are just spectating an injustice and no-one is even trying to make sense of it. In that anecdote, Me says nothing and explains he is usually silent, simply because he’s afraid. “Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep.”
A reluctant and unorthodox activist, he definitely isn’t offering any sort of meaningful analysis. And of course, his upbringing at the hands of a frankly deranged sociologist father has clearly deterred him from doing anything of the sort. So he’s simply going ahead with his mad vision of, well, of what exactly?
In fact, Paul Beatty has engineered his novel so that his protagonist has “pointed out a fundamental flaw in how we Americans claim we see equality. ‘I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, yellow, red, green or purple.’ We’ve all said it. Posited as proof of our nonprejudicial ways, but if you painted any one of us purple, we’d be mad as hell. And that’s what he’s doing. He’s painting everybody over, painting his community purple and green and seeing who still believes in equality.” For me, this is not so much a sell-out as a cop-out. The above quote summarises rather neatly what the author is doing here, not why. And yet a book about why, so what and what next? would be a very interesting read indeed.
And if anyone out there feels like helping me out, here are just a couple of the things I didn’t have a clue about, although I think I’ll adopt the phrase ” the time is always “Half past a monkey’s ass and a quarter to his balls” ” for its sheer poetry, regardless of what it means.
What’s a “penny-ante lounge singer”? an “APA tie-clasp”? What are those “bougies” that are coming? (I’m guessing not candles?) Why might one want to kill Guy Laroche who as far as I know, was a fashion designer and no longer needs to be killed? Wait, is there another Guy Laroche (quick Google later, there is, a Canadian military gentleman has that name too but I’m still no further on…)
And arguably my favourite in terms of complete mystification: “The donkey on the button rivers a third queen at Commerce Casino?”