Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren

Lundgren’s Book Lounge: “White Girls” by Hilton Als

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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Hilton Als

Since its beginnings in 2006 McSweeney’s has developed a reputation for publishing eclectic books and periodicals, including Portland, Maine, author Jessica Anthony’s startlingly original, award-winning debut novel, The Convalsecent. Add to that impressive and intriguing list Hilton’s Als newest offering, White Girls. White Girls is a mesmerizing extended essay on race, culture, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and what it means to be a gay black man in the modern world. It includes pieces on Flannery O’Connor, Eminem, Richard Pryor, Truman Capote, Michael Jackson and style and theater and cinema (Gone With the Wind), that will reshape forever the way that you consider these cultural tropes.

At the heart of the book though is Als’ examination of his role in the culture. When he is asked to comment on an exhibition of historical photographs of lynchings, he writes:

“… America’s interest in niggers… is of passing interest since America’s propensity to define race and the underclass through hateful language and hateful acts is well-known and much discussed. What isn’t discussed is what interests the largely white editors (who constitute what we call Publishing) have in hiring a colored person to describe a nigger’s life… Let me tell you what I see in these photographs: I see a lot of crazy-looking white people, as crazy and empty-looking in the face as some of the white people who stare at me.”

The horror of the lynching tradition that was very much a part of Southern culture is such that it almost becomes surreal. Als forces us to look that horror in the face, as when he wonders at what happens to the bodies after the lynching party has dispersed? “Did the families… stand at the periphery and wait for it all to be over, when someone… could climb the tree and cut Cousin or Mother or Father down?”

It is difficult to write about this book without returning to the text, because it is so masterful and beyond what any review might capture. Als’ day job is as theater critic for The New Yorker but it is the essay form that truly displays his writing prowess, first in his award-winning The Women (1996) and now in the National Book Critics Circle Award nominated White Girls. As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in the book’s cover notes, “As Anthony Heilbut’s recent Fan Who Knew Too Much taught me that I and everyone else I knew had a lot of gay black man in us, Als taught me that I have a lot of white girl in me too. And so do you, is where it gets interesting. If you think that sounds like another blurb-job or post-postmodern twaddle, I defy you to read this book and come away with a mind unchanged.”


[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a bookseller at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”).  He keeps a bird named Ruby, and teaches at Southern Maine Community College.]





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