The White Boy Shuffle

The White Boy Shuffle by a Paul Beatty was one of the more contradictory reading experiences I’ve ever had.  A few reviews I read prior to reading the book mentioned that it had a comedic tone and while sometimes that was true, the urge to cry often won out.  It was 226 pages of chuckling a little bit through the tears.  Well, maybe not all 226 pages, there were at least 65 pages in which the story took an absurdist turn and all feelings were put on hold as my brain tried to catchup to the story through several loop the loops and hairpin turns.

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The story starts out fairly grounded.  Though I think it’s important to mention the fact that what is grounded and makes sense is a black boy moving from a predominantly white neighborhood to a predominantly black neighborhood and never feels like he truly fits in with either. The social and economic disparities between the two neighborhoods feels normal. This is a wildly disappointing reality.  It’s one of the many lightbulb/rage moments I had during reading.

The truth is I think it was brilliant to start the main character, Gunner Kaufman, in a wealthier white community partly because it’s a good way of showing the many points he’s making about race rather than preaching about it, but also because it ensures the story is relatable to more people.  If this story had jumped right in to Gunner’s lifestyle in his high school years it still would have been a good story but I would have had a hard time understanding various decisions that were made and sympathizing for the consequences of those decisions would have been near impossible.

The thing about storytelling is that it is the best way to get people to understand and empathize with each other, but anything that works as well as storytelling does has potential to work really well in the opposite direction. It’s very easy to start in the middle of a story, right at the bit where everything has gone wrong and it’s obvious whose fault it is.  This is also a good way to alienate people.  It’s not fair at all, but in order to get people to truly understand problems (in this case race problems, but honestly this works for anything.) and to work together, the story connecting them needs to start with similarities and drop breadcrumbs for people to come to the wise conclusion that we’ve got a problem on our hands that we’ve played a major role in causing.

This story does just that.  Paul Beatty leaves a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to pick up and interpret.  Towards the end of the story the trail gets a little hard to follow but I think that’s because he’s writing about a possible future instead of the present.  I guess you could say at a certain point he starts dropping hypothetical breadcrumbs, which is nice, because that means there’s hope that we can make a change before it gets to that point.

Read this story, but read it with an open mind and anticipate strangeness, because the hypothetical breadcrumbs take some unexpected turns.

Common Place Book Entries

“These schoolyard chronicles never included my father’s misdeeds.  I could distance myself from the fuckups of the previous generations, but his weakness shadowed my shame from sun to sun.”

-The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty

“They say the fruit never falls far from the tree, but I’ve tried to roll down the hill at least a little bit.”

-The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty

“Black was a suffocating bully that tied my mind behind my back and shoved me into a walk-in closet.”

-The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty

 

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