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We don’t use the word palimpsest much anymore. It was a favored word back in the 1920s among poets and other cognoscenti of the literary, whether in Paris or in the Harlem Renaissance. That’s what Hilton Als’s declarative, swooning, kiss-my-ass, stream-of-consciousness collection of essays is, however: a palimpsest.
Why? Because there are traces of this and that which the author has written before, as well as bits and pieces of his early life and that of other black men with whom he was deeply and irrevocably and irretrievably attached, be they his own father (the “Daddy” of “Tristes Tropiques”), the elusive inamorata, SL (“Tristes Tropiques”), the larger than life Michael Jackson (“Michael”), the phenomenal Vogue arbiter Andre Leon Talley (“The Only One”) or the horrifying yet nameless bodies of lynched black men (“Gone with the Wind”). And then there are all the people who have tried to erase Als over the years, turning his actual life into a palimpsest of sorts.
Palimpsest is the coolest form of subtext and Als is the coolest form of essayist–the kind who lures the reader in with an almost breezy, entre nous, let-me-tell-you-a-story segue and then 90-odd pages later you come smack up against the end and go: Wait–let me think about that ending for a minute or a day or forever.
One of the things you should know about the title of Als’s book is that the white girls are not all girls and not all white. White girls is a trope and a meme. It’s the antecedent to black men in white America. It’s the alleged whistle of Emmett Till or the trial of the Central Park Five or the purse held tightly in the elevator or the policeman shining a light in the car and thinking you are holding up the friend you are just talking to (this last actually happened to Als).
In the cover blurb, Junot Diaz, who if you’ve read him, you love him, says, “White Girls is a book, a dream, an enemy, a friend, and yes, the read of the year.” There is indeed the languorous quality of dream to many of these essays–particularly the first and last. There is a sharpness, an edge, a bite. And there is also an inimitable ability to make the reader–even the whitest girl with the blondest hair and the bluest eyes–feel connected to the life Als is describing from the vantage point of a big black man of the sort that terrifies many white, blonde, blue-eyed girls in elevators and elsewhere. So there’s the friend part–and also the enemy part.
The real enemy throughout, though, is race–the specter of race in America which looms over everything, with Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” as the grisly anthem.
And race and sexuality, the heady interconnectedness of the two in still-racist, Mandingo-bred America is the undercurrent that runs throughout most of these pieces, particularly the long first essay, “Triste Tropiques.” The bulk of what we discover of Als himself is in that first essay and in “Gone with the Wind.” Those two pieces–the first over 90 pages, the other much shorter–tell stories of Als’s personal life as a black gay man, a gay black man that are deeply, provocatively compelling and maddeningly complex.
In the beginning pages of “Triste Tropiques” is the story of K, Als’s lover who dies of AIDS when K is barely 30 and the two of them–Als and K–have been doing a dance of intimacy and love and pieces of one’s self since K was 20 and Als not much older. As Als writes, “That’s how you recognize love. You’ve never met it before.”
The two are disparate–K is white and pretty and one of those white girls of the book’s title who loves girls like Mariel Hemingway in Woody Allen’s greatest film, Manhattan, and Als is big and black and K calls him Bear and you can see them together, each wanting something tantalizingly out of reach. And then, not long after there is this: “trying hard not to look at K’s body leaving his life.”
SL, the somewhat older and definitively blacker and more grounded inamorata is the shadow husband/lover/mentor/friend throughout this period and beyond. As K is the white girl of Als’s dreamy interior life, SL is the bold, big black man of his discovered self, yet SL, too, is complicated by racism: he reveres white people, Als tells us.
And he’s a bit of a white girl himself, reading deeply of lesbian-feminist literature like Shulamith Firestone and Ti-Grace Atkinson and speaks of “shared oppression.” SL tells Als he’s a lesbian separatist. Als calls SL’s internalized racism “counterphobic.”
As Als notes early on of himself, “I had no direct experience with white people until I was a teenager.”
Yet who are the people Als thinks about: white girls–white women, actually. He’s deeply invested in Charlotte Corday as portrayed by Glenda Jackson in Peter Brooks’s version of Peter Weis’s Marat/Sade, and as he writes of her–Jackson as much as Corday–those scenes return as vividly as if I were sitting in the Bandbox Repertory Cinema where I first saw that film decades ago.
And that’s how I know for sure, by page 25, that everything Als is saying is a vivid, bright truth: Because I can see that one so clearly and Jackson imprinted my teenage years dramatically because she wasn’t like anyone else and she burnt up the screen and she was one of the women who taught me how to be a lesbian.
So yes: Als saw that in her, too. That burning. He sees her anarchist self and he connects to it.
The problem, of course, about what Als sees is that you, the reader, might not want to see it, too, especially if you are white or a gay man. You might want to consider Als the kind of unreliable narrator that were stock-in-trade for writers like Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor, both of whom he explores here.
He’s not, though. Maybe about himself–who can know?–but about the rest of us? Not a chance.
In “The Women” (the title only in part a play on the Clare Booth Luce play of the same name, although there are no accidental allusions in Als), you might not want to think about what it means that Truman Capote was a lady author subsuming actual women authors of the same period like Carson McCullers because women had to be restricted and tailored and buttoned-up to move even an inch into the Big World of Publishing. All the while the pink-cheeked, sultry, baby-faced 20-something, self-invented, queeny Capote was already putting come-hither photos on his books and setting a tone other women authors would not match until the 1960s when The Pill and Jacquie Susann smashed through that papyrus ceiling.
It’s an intriguing paradigm Als sets up in “The Women.” He talks about gayness and the outside-of-heterosexual-relationships-with-women-ness of Capote as a larger discourse on gay male writers. (He also slaps Norman Mailer around just a little, which every woman likes to see; I know I do.) But “The Women” is also very much about where Capote is situated–and why–as one of the Great Writers of the 20th century. It’s about “manly” writing versus female writing. Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms versus his In Cold Blood.
Capote came this close to writing women right, but never really got inside the non-maiden aunts because he was so identified with men, despite all his lovely tales of his aunties and Thanksgiving and fruit cakes. And Als declares why: Capote can’t imagine that women might ultimately prefer their husbands to their gay pal.
In this essay and in others–notably “This Lonesome Place,” which is about the great Flannery O’Connor, segregation and rural Southern writing–Als discusses publishing with a capital P in a way writers aren’t supposed to do: a little viciously, a little disparagingly, a little enviously. He says what many of us–particularly the gay us or the women us or the of color us–think. That publishing with a capital P is still very much for white guys.
(And just a literary-esque aside here, but if you had the misfortune to read Jonathan Franzen’s extraordinarily self-absorbed essay several months ago in The Guardian books section, you’ll see my point about Als’s point. How does someone like Franzen get to self-declare as America’s greatest novelist? How does he get to dis Oprah–who had previously put Tolstoy and Faulkner on the best seller list–and now all of social media from the vantage point of his own literary Olympus, as a minor god of all things literary? It’s instructive that Salman Rushdie tweeted the next day that Twitter was good enough for him and Joyce Carol Oates. Of course Rushdie isn’t white and Oates has that pesky vagina, so: point made and re-made. Jennifer Wiener tweeted the night the essay came out that The Guardian had given Franzen a 5,000 word ad. Not much has changed since the 1947 Capote-era publishing that Als describes.)
It’s not just publishing, of course. Reading White Girls one comes smack up against the most unpleasant of truths: America is neither post-racial, post-queer nor post-feminist. The description of the world O’Connor inhabited slams up against Als’s imagining what would have transpired if she had indeed met with James Baldwin as was discussed but never happened–all of that could be happening now as much as then, 50 years ago. Particulars have changed, but the landmarks of racism, homophobia, sexism–they are all still so easy to locate.
Als has respect for O’Connor because she doesn’t turn black people into freaks in her books. She leaves them as real people–not saintly mammies or dangerous darkies, but true to who they were. It’s clear he admires that in her. And he depicts the elemental nature of faith in her work with a keen clarity. It’s a very good essay that further illumines O’Connor while also situating her in her era.
If there’s a flaw in these essays it’s that some of them just stop, rather that either roll to an end or bring out the cymbals and timpani. Some–particularly that first lengthy essay–could use a little more bang ending and less dying fall.
But that’s a quibble.
What resonates is Als talking about the taboo, the verboten, the things we really aren’t supposed to lay bare. What if, for example, the two white women prosecutors of the Central Park Five really couldn’t see past those young men’s blackness and their own whiteness and that long interconnected history of black men and white women?
There aren’t many answers in these essays, but there are many questions. That’s how the best essays read: Querying everything–the battlements of a life lived. And that’s what Als does in reprise after reprise.
I don’t have a favorite here, but I did re-read both “The Women” and “Gone with the Wind” because those two essays tell me things about being black and being a man who reads as a woman that I didn’t really know before I read them and which I kept thinking about afterward.
Als writes “Gone with the Wind” like he resents it and hates it and doesn’t want to do it. But it’s that anger–the essay was written to go with a series of photographs of lynched blacks–at the whole “exercise” that makes it ring so painfully true. In that essay Als peels back the layers of flayed historical flesh that is black American history and it is horrific.
“I’m ashamed that I couldn’t get into the history of these people,” he writes. “I saw these pictures through a strange light that my mind put up to obscure what I saw when I looked at all those dead niggers, their bodies reshaped by tragedy.”
And then he moves seamlessly into that story of the cop shining the light on him in his friend’s car and then we’re in Hollywood at a 1930s premiere under the klieg lights at Grauman’s Chinese Theater and then we’re in the actual movie of “Gone with the Wind” and his affinity is for Scarlett O’Hara as embodied by the slight, paler-than-pale white Vivien Leigh, even as he knows then and certainly later, that she could lynch him for the hardships she’s endured, be she Scarlett or Vivien.
Where blacks and gays and women fall in the panoply of American suffering and anger and resentment is the brutalitarian root of these essays. Sure, they are also about literature and popular culture and Malcolm X and the Central Park Five and Als’s own life as the son of “first-generation West Indian-American parents” who were not “professional Negroes.” But they are, through and through, about where we have yet to go as both individuals and a country.
Als doesn’t talk about the LGBT community at all and he barely talks about black community. In Als’s telling of these various stories, be they his own or the diverse group of Capote, O’Connor, Eminem, Michael Jackson, Andre Leon Talley or all those white women on the big screen or in publishing that are so problematic even as they are emblematic, Als’s telling is most reminiscent of Jean Genet and F. Scott Fitzgerald: this is the caste and class of America, with the historical underclass of blacks and the new underclass of gays. We’re not rugged individualists, we’re marginalized outsiders in counterphobic counterpoint to each other. A black gay man is confusing as hell in the American story about race where black male sexuality is forever associated with something bad happening to a white woman as it does at the end of “Tristes Tropiques.” Black gay men can’t be pinned to the same historical story that led to so many of those lynchings. Or can they?
And so Als upends that narrative. White Girls is about deconstruction. Als does that thing Fitzgerald does about class and outsiders and the isolation of not-belonging and he also does that thing Genet does of transliterating the taboo and the profane into a kind of freakish dailiness
White Girls is no easy read, but then serious essays weren’t meant to be breezed through, they were meant to be ruminated over. These are those kind of essays, Als is that kind of writer. This isn’t a book for everyone. Just one for those who really care to know what a gay black man thinks about White Girls America.
By Hilton Als
Hardcover, 9781936365814, 300 pp.