This one starts off with a literal bang. Our title character (“Tuff” is Winston Foshay’s tag name) regains consciousness after fainting in fear during a drug-den-invasion execution of his partners in narcotics crime. This combination of grim and comic characterizes the language and the events of Paul Beatty’s satirical look at East Harlem. Tuff is a twenty-two year old fat guy, married with baby son, living a dissolute street life that has landed him in jail from time to time. Wife Yolanda is nineteen and trying to get herself a night school degree. The rest of Tuff’s posse is a collection of the lame and the halt, misfits with pretensions and dreams for the future that have all the possibilities for fulfillment of hitting a multimillion dollar lottery. Fariq is a victim of something like polio, permanently imprisoned in crutches and braces as well as a mind-crippling bigotry toward Jews, among others. Spencer is street-challenged middle class black convert to Judaism trying to understand enough about ghetto life to earn his way as a journalist. Charley is the only white guy in the barrio, a tweener leftover from the demographics of a generation or so back. And so on.
Tuff’s father was a black Panther and still has a reputation as a poet and elder revolutionary, though in reality he and his buddies are no more than pretenders as artists in the same way the three-card-monte grifters are pretenders as entrepreneurs. Everyone, it seems, has a hustle, is–in society’s terms–a criminal of some sort.
As he steers us through this underworld, Beatty fires some telling rounds both at established society and at the ghetto folks themselves:
“[Fariq], you need to be more sensitive to the homosexual community. Especially since you, you know, is crippled and all.”
“Now what, I got to suck dick to be politically correct?”
And there are a myriad of funny-bitter moments like that. After a while, one begins to see a pattern to the seeming aimlessness of these folks’ lives. There’s a bizarre campaign for city council, an equally bizarre bank robbery. Tying them all together is an aspiration to rise above the Harlem life without giving it up, preferring the hypocrisy of the known life to the hypocrisy of the establishment.
I found a great deal to admire about Beatty. He reminds me somewhat of North Oakland writer Ishmael Reed and the inspiring, wounding satire of books like Yellow Back Radio Broke Down. Damaged as these people in Tuff are, this collection of near-freaks, and merciless as Beatty is in his portrayal of them, he loves them. Tuff neglects wife and family seemingly beyond redemption, then gets deeply interested in Yolanda’s studying of Gestalt psychology, then imagines himself an astronomer. An explorer of the universe as well as the universe of the mind and the streets. And we all at once know why they stay together and why they’re a family and special. I had Slumberland on my list when I went looking for a Beatty, but Tuff is what I found. Good. But it got to be a chore near the end. Too much aimlessness for me. I won’t go looking for Slumberland. This, I think, is enough Beatty for the time being.