This is an early novel from the eventual Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty. Paul Beatty’s win for The Sellout a few years ago was certainly a surprise. The layers of irony and reversal happening in that novel and the ways in which the novel requires a certain experience with American life meant it felt like a very unlikely winner.
This novel is probably even more unlikely. What’s funny about this book to me is that I have worked in two high schools that had this in the library, and I DO think that’s wonderful for the kid who finds this book and really gets into it. It’s an absolutely brilliant, wry novel.
We get our story through Gunnar Kaufman, a 13 year old Black kid from Los Angeles who moves from a middle class neighborhood to a working class Black neighborhood and spends his early days there trying to fit in, having zero understanding of what this might mean for him. He tries to join a gang, and fails horribly, he tries to figure out how to fit in at school and not fit in too well and ruin his grades. He’s saved from himself by the discovery that he’s a phenom basketball player. The novel follows him to an affluent private school, to college, and beyond.
What I would emphasize here is that this novel is WEIRD. It’s not a straightforward novel at all. This feels like it’s a kind of 90s version of Invisible Man recast in a significantly post-Civil Rights era (yes, I am aware of the anemic nature of my phrasing) and more so within the zeitgeist of The War on Drugs and the “superpredators” era. Obviously it still has some relevancy still.