Probably the least important thing worth saying about Hilton Als' "White Girls" is that it's the best book of the year. I think it is, but these essays — hostile, intimate, whip-smart — brush aside such accolades. They refuse tidy conclusions, easy answers. Nothing is settled, not even whether one is a white girl or a black man. "But what exactly is a black?" asks Jean Genet in the book's epigraph. "First of all, what's his color?" Als is a gay black man, but he's not so sure what that means, and you shouldn't be, either.
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Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that what I really mean is that the last 240 or so pages of "White Girls" are the best book of the year, or maybe 150 of those pages. The collection begins with 90 pages of meandering memoir that I slogged through with increasing boredom and frustration. It's hard to say so, given the essay's wrenching personal revelations, but the writing is sloppy ("Upon moving in, our neighbors phoned the police"), the tone sentimental, the structure haphazard, the whole a mess. A staff writer for The New Yorker, Als is fearsomely brilliant, but he's not much of an editor, and neither is whoever edited "White Girls."
After that opening, though, the book turns on a thin dime. A profile of Truman Capote as "the most famous woman author … of his generation" is so much better than what comes before that you wish someone had pointed this out to Als. And then there is a flabbergasting double slam: the most astute reading of Flannery O'Connor I know, followed by an essay written for "Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America."
The first sentence of the former begins: "The two niggers, a man and a woman, cutting across the field are looking for a little moonshine when they spot the white boy." The first sentence of the latter: "So what can I tell you about a bunch of unfortunate niggers stupid enough to get caught and hanged in America, or am I supposed to say lynched?" As if "hanged" is the word we might question in that sentence.
Indeed, Als uses the word "nigger" so often, with such vehemence, that the white reviewer is left sputtering about the use/mention distinction, like Barbara Walters in an interview with Richard Pryor from which Als quotes:
Walters: When you're onstage … see, it's hard for me to say. I was going to say, you talk about niggers. I can't … you can say it. I can't say it.
Pryor: You just said it.
Walters: Yeah, but I feel so …
Pryor: You said it very good.
Walters: … uncomfortable.
Pryor: Well, good. You said it pretty good.
Pryor: That's not the first time you said it. (Laughter.)
Like Pryor, the subject of a terrific essay here, Als is not concerned with making white people comfortable in his art; he has to devote enough time to making them comfortable with his very being. "So much care, so much care, is taken not to scare white people simply with my existence, and it's as if they don't want to deal with the care, either. It makes their seeing me as a nigger even more complicated."
I'll say. The use of that word in those opening sentences is so powerful because Als isn't interested merely in its shock value or its reappropriation. Both essays open onto the expanse of "this nigger feeling" he wants to "bow out of," and the ways that feeling gets culturally transmitted and transmuted. The pictures and postcards — postcards, for God's sake — of lynched black bodies make Als uneasy and angry, of course, but not only for the obvious reasons. The essay turns on its solicitors, "the largely white editors" who hire "a colored person to describe a nigger's life." Explain it to us, the editors seem to say, and we'll nod and frown and shake our heads and feel so very sorry that this is your life. Which will make us feel better about ourselves.
When Als writes about "niggers," then, he's writing about whiteness. Recounting a Richard Pryor sketch from a Lily Tomlin variety special, he says that "The minute the white people enter, something terrible happens, from an aesthetic point of view." In a way, Als' subject is the terrible things that happen aesthetically when whiteness enters a room, insofar as his subject is performativity, and whiteness is that which resists the performative, that in relation to which nonwhites are forced to perform. In this sense, whiteness is a marker not only of color but of sex and gender (and less so of class, an arguably more foundational social marker that Als treats sparingly).
In his first book, "The Women," Als remembers the black actress Dorothy Dean, who identified as a gay white man in "her life lived as performance" but was used "by her interpreters to exhibit their narrative control over yet another notoriously difficult Negress." Capote, a white woman on Als' reading, responded to his displaced position within whiteness by cultivating a "sentimental anti-Semitism," locating real power in a mythical male Jewish cultural apparatus. America, Als writes, has an "obsession with niggers, both black and white."
Als isn't consistent in his deployment of the tropes of whiteness, but neither is America. The best essays here — on O'Connor, lynching, Pryor, "Gone With the Wind," Eminem, Michael Jackson — belong to that American critical tradition whose ambit is "the complexity inherent in imagining what despair means to someone else and how that despair may shape arrogance," and the sad truth that being American has too often meant the exclusion of that complexity. It's a tradition that includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, O'Connor, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., Edmund Wilson, John McPhee, Marilynne Robinson, John Jeremiah Sullivan. The "best books of the year" fall away; this book will change you.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" and a forthcoming book of criticism, "Equipment for Living."
By Hilton Als, McSweeney's, 300 pages, $24