Leche y libros #1

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Brew: Cafe con leche, at La Rosa (Miami, FL)
Book: White Girls by Hilton Als

What an appropriate drink for this book–Cuban cafe con leche, in which rich dark coffee invades steamed milk little by little, you make the call in terms of how much and when, but like Ellison’s paint factory sequence in Invisible Man, one drop permanently recolors the whole liquid and you can’t remove the brown once that happens. It’s a velvety, mesmerizing drink, slightly bitter, just as Hilton Als’s prose is all of these things. It’s a bizarre book, sentences careening from one strange and discomforting idea to the next. He engages blackness, gayness, and maleness by insisting–through criticism, memoir, snark, and deep pain–that he finds his true identity when he’s whitest, straightest, and feminine. He extends Albert Murray’s “Omni-American” concept by making it weirder, by destabilizing its presumptions, by smudging its implied identity politics–this, even though Murray was railing against those kinds of politics. So fearless that I wonder if Als has any friends left after this book’s publication, White Girls nevertheless reveals a scared, scarred heart. He makes the personal political. No, that’s wrong. The book’s most radical, political act is reinserting idiosyncrasies and the sense of “I” to cultural criticism and memoir–and fusing those two–so that politics (which flattens and reduces individuals to generalized abstractions and generalized needs) are subsumed–when not dismissed altogether–by individual voice. Always challenging, always fresh, deeply unsettling in its morals and loves and fierce hates, White Girls keeps rewiring my brain and making me reassess, even when I wish Als would cut black girls (and black men like himself, like me) a little more slack and a little more empathy. Still, in his showing how white girls (actual & imagined, real figures & conceptualized racialized femininity) are a part of all of us, he also insinuates himself–gay black boys–into our heads. For how can white girls exist without black boys? We define ourselves by what we’re not but, in doing so, we prove that we are and are made by what we’re not. (One bit of offhand brilliance, about Flannery O’Connor: “…readings of this American master often overlook the originality and honesty of her portrayal of Southern whiteness. Or, rather, Southern whiteness as it chafed under its biggest cultural influence–Southern blackness.”) This is heady stuff, exasperating and brilliant and jittery, all the heavier because Als writes like a fluid dream, all smoothness and silk even when his thoughts are anything but–and they’re always anything but. We are all a part of each other culturally, Als conveys, but he also conveys that this isn’t the unencumbered good that it’s advertised as.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to Leche y libros #1

  1. Andrew Hidas says:

    Helluva one-paragraph review, Walter. Given the subject matter as you describe, I’m thinking I would’ve enjoyed you going for broke ala Virginia Woolf and make it all one sentence!

    Have enjoyed Als’s work for a long time, didn’t know any of these particulars about him, and besides the inherent fascination of his story, I’m left with the not-new thought of what complicated creatures we humans are—it’s almost impossible to overstate or exaggerate that point. But it takes artists with the depth and fearlessness of Als to bring it home to us, with all its due emphases. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Thanks, Andrew. Yeah, I’ve tried the one-sentence story before, back when I was infatuated w/Woolf & Faulkner and Stephen Dixon–still love all three but man I wrote some awful stuff in that mode. The one-paragraphers are fun challenges, seeing if I can convey most of what I think in a coherent form and in a way that moves/flows fluidly. It’s hard to cheat on transitions when writing in this micro-essay style, so I’ve been sticking to it for “Song of the day” and “Beer & Book” pieces.

    I had read a little bit of Als before, and follow his theater reviews in the New Yorker but I’ve not seen most of this stuff before. I get the feeling that much of it is too challenging or “out there” for mainstream mags. I admire him for the effort, and admire McSweeney’s for publishing the book.

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