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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

How to Swear Like an African-American Teenage Male, Circa 1985

posted by on January 15 at 17:53 PM

Last night’s Colson Whitehead appearance at Benaroya Hall was a fun and funny time. I forgot my camera, so I wasn’t able to get a picture of Whitehead’s fabulous suit, which appeared brown from a distance but kind of glowed olive green and gold upon closer inspection. (After the talk, Whitehead proudly discussed the source of his suit’s light-diffracting power: cheapness. He said that it cost “like ninety dollars” and it felt like it was made of some sort of polyester/plastic blend.)

The framework was basically a “Who I am and how I came to be” sort of deal, and, after an initial fakeout story (“I was born a poor black boy in Mississippi…I can still recall how we were all out on the porch a-singin’ and a-dancin’…”) Whitehead relayed the facts (born and raised in Manhattan, grew up reading comic books and sci-fi, desperately wanted to become the “Black Stephen King and write The Black Shining and The Black Salem’s Lot,” got a job at The Village Voice until he wrote his first novel and, um, then we all woke up in Benaroya Hall, the end.)

And then Whitehead read from his untitled next novel, which probably won’t be out until some time next year. “I wish I could tell you the plot, but nothing happens,” he said, looking kind of pained. Unlike his other novels, which range from outright sci-fi to weirdly spare symbolism-rich fable-things, it’s going to be an autobiographical sketch of his upbringing, kind of along the lines of the brilliant first half of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (which is not to be confused with the wretched second half of Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude.)

Using a visual aid, Whitehead explained the construction of N-verb insults among friends from his youth: (Pop-cultural reference or general insult) + (verb ending in n’) + (the words “bitch,” “motherfucker” or “nigger”.) Some examples: “You George Jefferson-lookin’ motherfucker” or “You Members Only Jacket-wearin’ bitch.” For additional flavor, Whitehead said, you could add “You fuckin’” before the insult, and close the whole thing by saying, “…with your monkey ass.”

The high point of the evening for me came at the end of the (rather weak) question and answer period, when someone asked (in reference to the Richard Ford-spitting-on-Whitehead incident I wrote about in this week’s Constant Reader) whether Whitehead had, in his thirties, reconsidered his distaste for Richard Ford’s writing, particularly the Frank Bascombe novels. After a delicious pause, Whitehead said that there are lots of people who enjoy reading novels about “male menopause,” and that there’s nothing wrong with that, and that it’s great that they never have to wait very long for “The next Frank Bascombe sequel to be churned out.” The laughter was both strong and uncomfortable for the Seattle Arts and Lectures crowd, which does quite a bit of worship at the altar of literary celebrity.

And then there was nothing left to say, so we all left.

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Why do I have a sinking feeling that this isn't the last time we'll see someone use the phrase "with your monkey ass" on Slog.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | January 15, 2008 6:08 PM

Dear Paul Constant:

Please post more on Slog.

With much admiration,


Posted by Aislinn | January 15, 2008 6:18 PM

I'm gratified that I'm not the only person who wishes she'd stopped reading Fortress of Solitude halfway through. Way to make the moral of your complex coming-of-age narrative "You're allowed to sleep with white girls," Lethem.

Posted by Kiru Banzai | January 15, 2008 7:05 PM

Wait, I thought the moral was that he was allowed to sleep with black girls. Now I'm all kinds of confused. Do I have to read the second half again?!

Posted by Eric Grandy | January 15, 2008 7:18 PM

I grew up in Philadelphia during this era. I know all about this form of language. Fuck this shit.

Posted by Karlheinz Arschbomber | January 15, 2008 9:42 PM

I liked the story about his friend whom they called "activator".

Posted by safsad | January 16, 2008 8:08 AM

I didn't think the second half of "Fortress of Solitude" was so terrible. And I don't think the moral was about who he gets to sleep with. To me, it was sort of a Proustian meditation on memory and transformation through time. Plus that business with the neighborhood asshole plummeting to his death while trying to escape prison was a nice twist. Maybe I'm missing something...

Posted by Jason E | January 16, 2008 1:08 PM

Wish I could have been there. I'm currently passing the slow work days listening to him read from "The Colussus of New York City: A City in Thirteen Parts" over and over again.

Posted by Keith | January 16, 2008 10:49 PM

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