New York City is a place like no other. Its political, social and ethnic diversity have little competition in the world. It is a place that people escape to, escape from, or avoid altogether. A mention of its name brings a flood of pictures to mind, whether you’ve been there or only seen it in the movies. Wild nights, bright lights, and gang fights are all part of its image.
Not to mention a little neighborhood on the north end of Manhattan called East Harlem. Otherwise known as Spanish Harlem, its strife-filled streets have been glamorized by Hollywood and profiled by PBS. Stripping it down to its bear and ugly core, they’ve shown the “truth” of the gangster lifestyle, pervasive poverty, teenage parents, drugs and STDs. But what you may be missing from this display of documentary truth is the most important aspect of life in East Harlem: the humor and camaraderie of growing up in a neighborhood-wide family.
Enter Winston “Tuffy” Foshay. He’s a 22-year-old father, a gun-shy bodyguard, an uneducated film aficionado, and, oh yeah, a candidate for New York’s city council.
Tuffy is not your typical candidate, and certainly not your typical East Harlemite. However, he is typical, in his stereotype-defying personality, of the characters in Paul Beatty’s latest novel Tuff. Were you to travel to East Harlem, you would have difficulty finding a shadow of these characters. From the street-clueless black rabbi who is Tuffy’s Big Brother to Fariq, a handicapped, bank-robbing stock market wiz, Beatty has developed utterly unique and challenging personalities that, were you to see them on a trip back East, you would call out “Tuffy” or “Spencer” or “Fariq,” confident that Beatty’s work was more non-fiction than farcical comedy.
Beatty doesn’t want you to be able to put your thumb on any of these characters. Or any of his ideas for that matter. The theme in this book seems to be that, in a post-everything world, themes no longer apply. To label one person or neighborhood or city definitively, takes away the very essence of character. Tuffy and his gang (of non-gang-bangers) constantly defy the reader’s expectations. In this way, Beatty accomplishes what can’t be done with simply paradoxical characters: He develops readers who truly lack prejudice. You are so surprised at every turn of the story that you no longer anticipate what will happen but merely allow it to happen.
This tactic can at times be frustrating and feel more like a tool for Beatty’s political agenda than a tireless commitment to his characters. He gets in stabs at those who call him the voice of the Hip-Hop community (“‘Hip-hop community.’ Where the hell is the opera community? The heavy-metal community? How the hell you define people by the kind of music they listen to? And man, to be honest with you, I don’t even like rap music too tough.”), and uses literary references somewhat incongruously, in an attempt to show some complex relationship between oppressed Americans and the Western cultural tradition. But fortunately, Beatty manages to rescue himself and his story from pontification by convincing us that these references are merely part of the growing American identity crisis.
On the very first page, Beatty clues the reader into what he’s trying to accomplish. He warns you that Tuffy’s “thick tight lips hint at neither snarl nor smile. Winston’s is a face that could just as easily ask you for the time as for your money.” In other words, don’t jump to any conclusions about his motivations or actions. But this is not an easy thing to ask, and he knows it. Beatty describes how Tuffy, carrying a Wall Street Journal under his arm on the subway, notices: “white people was looking me at different. Smiling and shit. Like they wanted to come up to me and ask, ‘What a nigger like you doing reading a paper like that?’” He’s ensuring that readers realize their own prejudice by reminding them that they probably had a similar reaction when, 14 “niggers” and five “motherfuckers” (over seven pages) into the book, a group of drug dealers are conversing about ornithology and the call of the Alauda arvenis.
Beatty implicates readers in this story both by engaging their conscience, as he does in the above example, and by reeling them in with precise, tangible diction that gives a five-senses understanding of the place and people. First published as a poet, Beatty has an astute and original feel for language. Describing the after-effects of a warm weekend night in East Harlem, Beatty describes “Ursula Huertas, seven years old, flying across Lexington Avenue as if she’d been shot out of a circus cannon. She lay there in the gutter, a crumpled, unmoving ball of black hair and bony brown limbs, her mother and the purple flowers on her bleached white Sunday-school dress doing the screaming for her.” His ability to connect varied images and ideas at once fills you with intellectual pleasure and helps you attain a rounder understanding of the scene.
Beatty has created a story in which language, character and agenda blend so seamlessly that you are earnest to get his take on an endless stream of issues. Without making his readers feel coerced, Beatty offers up a view of the world that, like his characters who refuse to be pinned down, challenges one’s way of looking at race, gender, class, and most importantly, he makes one question why these categories even matter.