Punked For Life
The black race has had a tumultuous tenure in the glorious United States of America. They came as slaves and helped build an entire nation, but it took a bloody war to remove their shackles. After the dust settled, these people had to find their place in this unfamiliar land. Armed with their newfound freedom, there have been many great strides, as well as terrible strife, during this quest. This search for the people’s place is at the heart of Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle. The novel is a farcical observance of what society expects out of the black community. This story follows Gunnar Kaufman and by use of comedic satire, Kaufman serves up a scathing look at the expected social norms, pulling no punches in the process. While mocking many topics, the author also paints a sometimes bleak picture of young black men being forced to choose between what they want for themselves and what society wants for them.
The very first thing Beatty does to differentiate his story is enlighten the readers with Gunnar’s family history. Instead of an enthralling tale of black heroes who gave the Kaufmans a shining legacy, the reader meets Euripides Kaufman. What makes this man so noteworthy that his name has been passed down generation after generation? Gunnar tells the readers, all the while in the book’s wry manner of humor, “Euripides Kaufman artfully dodged a redcoat’s musket shot with his name on it and Crispus Attucks woke up in nigger heaven a martyr” (Beatty 9). While the sheer absurdity of the moment is a dosage of black humor, it also serves to cement two images of the black man in history: that of the beloved martyr, and that of the subservient commoners. The readers are informed early on that his family name is rooted in the latter. The great Euripides Kaufman hid at the rear of the angry mob Crispus was at the front of, and in the modern-day, Gunnar’s father works at the Los Angeles Police Department where he laughs, without fail, at racist jokes. Paul Beatty is masterfully hinting at what is really at the core of his book right from the start. Will Gunnar be a martyr, or another “sell-out Kaufman” (Beatty 10)? The novel circles back to the role of leaders and martyrs by its climax in a stunning manner.
The White Boy Shuffle is many things, among them a coming-of-age story. It follows Gunnar from early childhood all the way up to his first stint in college. He spends his first few years living comfortably in Santa Monica amongst white friends, but when his mother moves the family to Los Angeles when she senses Gunnar and his siblings have no clue what the black identity is. This sets in motion his first dilemma: Gunnar is not attuned to the culture of the area. He speaks and dresses differently than his newfound neighbors, leading to quite a bit of struggling for him. Gunnar is the ‘white-washed’ black kid of pop culture legend, begrudgingly admitting that the “gods of blackness would let me know when I was black enough to be trusted” (Beatty 53). This need to fulfill a certain image of blackness is not just a requirement of the locals, but also for the outsiders of the community.
In a short but poignant scene, a production team comes to Hillside looking to shoot a music video. Gunnar, like many others, seeks a fun role as an extra but he is immediately turned away by the director, noting he is “too studious” (Beatty 76). The production team has come to the area searching for a specific look, and Gunnar is not it. When they do find the right extras to film, the crew follows the orders of their director Mr. Edgar Barley Burrows to capture the ghetto in all its violent, lowrider filled, glory. This idea of selling an image is commented upon by author Rolland Murray who said “that Burrows and the crew reproduce a fantasy of interracial relations that is itself a mass-culture product- a reproduction of a reproduction- they represent the contemporary economy of simulations” (224). Gunnar himself, slowly but surely, learns to also sell an image in order to fit in the new neighborhood. He cuts his hair, buys new shoes, and takes on the game of basketball, thus beginning Gunnar’s tragic relationship with the sport.
When Gunnar first starts playing basketball, he is trying to fit in but he is also genuinely trying something new. In doing so, he also meets his best friend, Nicholas Scoby. Together they wow their coaches and audiences alike, though Scoby is still better many times over. In fact, he is the player who never misses a shot. Basketball does bring Gunnar closer to the community and for a time, it is an amusing pastime for him. Still, it never becomes his passion. At the end of the day, he is at his happiest when creating poetry. Scoby too has other aspirations, namely a self-assigned mission to listen to every jazz musician, and in alphabetical order no less. Gunnar witnesses the antithesis of this when he goes to a basketball summer camp. There he is surrounded by young men who can see nothing but the court. He meets Touch and Z-Groove, writing to Scoby that “They’re cool, but all they do is talk about basketball, 24-7. We come back to the crib after eight hours of playing and analyzing basketball, and the first thing they do is stick a highlight reel of their hero, Cleotis Jacobin, into the VCR” (Beatty 147). This narrow-minded outlook on life is something Gunnar can never embrace. While others are enraptured by the game, whether watching it from the bleachers or handling the ball, he never dedicates himself to it. The same cannot be said for Scoby unfortunately. The young man is consumed by the sport.
In the later years of Gunnar’s life, both he and his friend attend Boston University. By now the book begins to take a darker tone, noted in the book Upon Further Review: Sports in American Literature, “Although much of this novel is flippant, Beatty changes tone here, contrasting this observation with many of Gunner’s wry ones. He predicts that Scoby’s own methods will fail to help him escape other’s control over him” (Emmert and Cocchiarale 71). It is all building up to the complete deterioration of Scoby as a human being with his own wants and interests. The expectations for him have been narrowed down to basketball and nothing else. Gunnar can see his dear friend is beginning to crack and confesses to his wife that his friend will soon need professional help. In his time of need, those who adore Scoby for his skills are nowhere to be found. Not his fans, and especially not his coach who “thinks if Scoby is averaging nineteen points a game he’s fine” (Beatty 195). Even his mission for music crumbles as the pressure from the expectations of those around him bear down on him. Society has determined Scoby’s fate, not himself. This glaring condition is disease-like and breaks the intelligent young man down to the point he sees only one means of escape: taking his own life.
Near the climax of the book, the idea of society’s wants coming before the individual comes to a head. Through his poetry, Gunnar becomes a new messiah-like figure for the people to follow. There are constant scenes of people swooning over a single sentence he delivers and propping him up as one of the great intellectuals of his age. Humanity has always idolized individuals, often out of a need for guidance or validation of their beliefs. Most have welcomed the role of leader with open arms, but not Gunnar. No, the youngest male of the Kaufman lineage “expresses a reluctance and disbelief in the messiah approach to liberation. He does not pursue and relish the position, but a needy black population thrust it upon him” (Stallings 103). Black or white, both sides of society expect things from people. From Scoby they wanted nothing but a master of basketball, and from Gunnar they demand a leader. With biting cynicism, Gunnar informs them that the only respectable leaders are the ones who are willing to die for their beliefs. Death is the only route from a world that never seems to change (Beatty 201).
At its darkest, the people of the world become comparable to lemmings, ending their lives at Gunner’s ‘instruction’. Along with throwing guilt his way every chance they get, society has a new expectation for Gunnar: live up to his own sermon and end his life. There are even a few moments that Gunnar seems content with finally dying and bringing it all to an end. Society would get what they want, but Gunnar does not end his own life. He does not bend to the will of the public, his father, or even to his own inner demons. Gunnar goes on living, but he also breaks away from the established social norms. He drops out of his prestigious university for one example, but the most poetic is the birthing of his child. He and his wife, Yoshiko, decide to have the child in a public park for all eyes to see. What is normally a private moment enjoyed in the company of only a few becomes a “birthing theme park” (Beatty 218). The event does not lose its intimacy. After the tragic death of Scoby and countless others, Gunnar finds himself smiling at his newborn daughter, delivered by his mother no less. It is a celebration of life. Soon after, he seems to even embrace his role of leader by hosting events alongside his wife. His pessimism is still prevalent, but he once more finds himself in Hillside where he celebrates poetry with the locals. On the last page of the book, Gunnar’s father ends up going the same way as Scoby before him. Perhaps he finally realized he was a puppet who never had control of his own strings. This is particularly striking since throughout the entire book his father had been a man only concerned with Gunnar being like him, a man who lived only to blend in with his surroundings. Gunnar does as his mother before him and tells his daughter of the Kaufman legacy, but Gunnar is not Euripides. He is not his father. He is the one Kaufman who broke away from what was expected of him at almost every turn. His defiance was rebellion incarnate and ultimately true freedom. He saw things differently than most around him and he spoke his mind even when it unsettled others. That is the legacy he leaves behind.
The White Boy Shuffle uses satire to poke fun at a great many things, but it also tells its readers much about a person’s role in society. Gunnar’s family history could have shaped his destiny. Compounded by a society telling him how and what to think, he could have gone the way of many others in the book. Scoby shed light on being a slave in the modern era, “I know what it feels like to live in a world where you can’t live your dreams. I’d rather die too. Why won’t they leave us alone? They fuck up your dream. They fuck up your dream” (Beatty 194). Without freedom of choice, a person does not need shackles to feel oppressed. Placing the desires of others for your own future before your own dreams is equivalent to slowly asphyxiating yourself. From his dedication to poetry, his shunning of the elitist pity for the black race, to his refusal to bow down, Gunnar represents a man who saw what society expected from him and said to hell with it. He is his own person, as all should be.
Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1997. Print.
Cocchiarale, Michael, Emmert, Scott. Upon Further Review: Sports in American Literature. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. Print.
Murray, Rolland. “Black Crisis Shuffle: Fiction, Race, and Simulation”. African American Review, 42.01. (2008): 215-233. JSTOR. Web. 20 May 2017.
Stallings, L.H. “Punked for Life: Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle and Radical Black Masculinities”. African American Review, 43.01. (1999):99-116. Project Muse. Web. 20 May 2017