White Boy Shuffle

Towards the end of White Boy Shuffle, Gunnar Kaufman recites a Martin Luther King, Jr.  quote as a call to self-examination, and self-execution.  The quote states, “If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live” (199-200).  It is unclear whether or not Gunnar has decided what he is willing to die for, and I wonder if Beatty himself completely figured out what this novel was meant to stand for?

If we consider this novel as a genre piece, the humor in this novel stands out through Beatty’s word play and use of hyperbole.  The character of Ms. Cegeny, the fact that Gunnar and Nick Scoby attend Phyllis Wheatley High, and of course the unforgettable Kaufman legacy are each undeniably funny.  But to what end is the humor intended to move the reader?  Beatty throws pointed barbs at black intellectuals, Afrocentric activists, gang bangers, and bleeding heart liberals alike.  He casts his satirical net so wide, that no one escapes criticism, and everyone is vilified rather than creating a clear thematic or political stance.

Despite Beatty’s broad stroke he touches on several issues in meaningful ways.  White Boy Shuffle calls attention to the erasure of women from black history, most notably through his own family history, but inserts women into his narrative in surprising ways.  Women inexplicably appear on the Phyllis Wheatley basketball team, his mother plays a formative role in helping Gunnar navigate (at least in the geographic sense) his racial identity, and Yoshiko and Naomi’s emergence at the end of the novel opens the possibility that women will reenter the racialized and patriarchal narrative which has left them out.

Perhaps the most clear issue that Beatty is addressing the concept of multiculturalism.  Published in 1996, the heart of the multiculturalism debates, Beatty creates a landscape that deals with ‘color blindness,’ forced diversity, and complex notions of being biracial (Ms. Kim, Gunnar’s daughter, and Gunnar himself in some ways).  How does Beatty’s critique of racial stereotypes fit with the Hillside Community that he seems to glorify?  Is Gunnar’s call for suicide a means of providing a way out for those trapped in an outdated racial binary, or is it yet another symbol of ineffective black leadership?  How useful is it to read White Boy Shuffle as a treatise on race, rather than a humor piece which simply reflects the realities of mid-90’s Los Angeles?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “White Boy Shuffle

  1. What I found particularly interesting in the novel was the early preoccupation with origins and the narrator’s comments on his mother’s being an orphan and how she adopted the oral history of her now ex-husband. As I was reading it seemed like a stereotypical black book about stereotypically black things, meaning you were given what people often assume: single black woman raising her bundle, fatherless children seeking identity, etc. And it goes into the quote in the opening paragraph of the above response “if a man hasn’t discovered something he can die for, he isn’t fit to live” (199-200). This quote seems to go hand in hand with something my grandmother used to tell my cousins and I growing up, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” I think the point of the novel is to highlight the need for active engagement with society, as opposed to the passive blackness that is always underlying in society and naturally in black writing. Seems pretty heavy for a book guised as a humorous piece.

  2. Jonathan

    I believe the wide net of satire in this book serves to disorient the reader and forces them to create their own meanings. There were many times when I laughed to myself, but then thought why. There were hidden nuggets of satire that struck me as extremely poignant and telling. What really got me was the final “death poem” by Gunnar’s father. “…but when I wake up/I forget it….” The satire and this final poem seem to serve up a meaning of maintaining integrity, whatever that may mean to each individual. Just like the Simpsons, which seems to leave no stereotype unturned, this novel forces me to reexamine any and all of the assumptions I hold about the world around me. There may be no clear cut “answer” or message to the novel and that may be the point.

  3. Leah

    I completely agree that this book forces the reader to reexamine any preconceived notions he/she might have about serious issues like race, gender, gangs, and even seemingly unimportant issues like basketball, life in L.A., etc. Beatty addresses all the issues truthfully, honestly, and completely openly. He uses humor as a way to address all the issues without writing a heavy, tragic story. I think it is important to realize that even though this is a satire, the issues within this story are very real. The reader can laugh and enjoy the story, while at the same time being forced to take a step back and think about what life in America really is like. The part of the story which took my breath away and caused me to stop and think was the Rodney King verdict and riots, and the beating Gunner receives from his policeman father. These issues were presented in the same joking manner as the rest of the book, but the severity of the situation was most certainly not lost. In fact, I think Beatty does an excellent job shocking the reader into thinking, by sneaking serious issues into an otherwise hilarious text.

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