In his satirical first novel, Paul Beatty -- a prominent hip-hop poet who's been lauded by the likes of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. -- presents a very unique character indeed. Gunnar Kaufman comes from a long line of African-American men who, at first glance, might be deemed a disgrace to their race. Well, okay, at second glance, too: His family tree includes a manservant so loyal no one had the nerve to tell him that his white master was dead; a first-generation-free artist who sought inspiration in a return to the slave lifestyle; a music promoter of white acts that ripped off Motown and R&B groups; and his father, who works proudly, wholeheartedly and unconflictedly for the LAPD.
Gunnar has his own problems: his mother "rescues" him from a life of Santa Monica privilege (Generation X style -- picture a smart, ironic boy who listens to Henry Rollins and hangs out with bar-mitzvahed surfers) and plops him down in inner-city L.A. They live near a "bustling Italian intersection, without the Italians" -- but with gangs, guns and girls sporting towering, sculptured hairdos who love to kick his ass.
Gunnar manages to survive, albeit with some formidable -- nay, mythical -- tools. These include a devastating basketball dunk; his terse, tragicomic poetry; and the love of what can only be termed a postmodern posse -- a Mishima-worshipping star ball player; an honorable, crossbow-carrying gangbanger named Psycho Loco; and a sassy, quickwitted Asian mail-order bride. If all this sounds a bit over the top and too clever for its own good, it is. But you'll barely notice that among Beatty's many humorous ambushes. (I found myself making those strangulated-sounding yips and barks that tend to embarrass in public. Yip rate: one about every two pages.)
Beatty's brilliantly twisted parodies of racial stereotypes are a marvel, as is his fast-paced, yet disciplined, writing style: "Mrs. Schaefer spat off the names like salted peanut shells. 'Wardell Adams?' 'Here.' Varnell Alvarez?' 'Aqui.' 'Praise-the-Lord Benson?' 'Yupper.' 'Chocolate Fondue Edgerton?' 'That's my name, ask me again and you'll be walking with a cane.' 'I don't know how to pronounce the next one.' 'You pronounce it like it sounds, bitch. Maritza Shakaleema Esperanza the goddess Tlazoteol Eladio.' 'So you're here?' 'Do crack pipes get hot?'"
No matter how fast and furious the laughs, it's clear that Gunnar's constant parlaying of life's sow's ears into silk Prada bags (he attends Boston University; his poetry provokes a profound new political movement) is really a fictional counterpart to Beatty's own survival m.o. "The White Boy Shuffle" leaves you with the stark realization that its hilarity comes at a high cost.