Impression of Hilton Al’s White Girls

(Spoiler Alert: Life is Tough for EVERYBODY)

At least ten times a day I somehow manage to convince myself that being me is the worst possible means of experiencing humanity. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Lot of time hanging out with friends involves hearing them bemoan the circumstances of their life and nodding along in the hopes that it’ll help them sort through whatever stuff they’re currently going through, and restore some sense of equilibrium to them. I think this is often the barometer that makes a book good/bad to me- how much empathy can I feel for someone who isn’t, but is like me whether ‘real’ or fictional.

I checked out White Girls (ha! ha. ha?) of the Summit Library System from OSU after seeing an ad for it in an issue of The Believer Magazine late last year. It featured blurbs from Junot Díaz and John Jeremiah Sullivan, two authors whose work continues to resonate with me long after I’ve read them. In addition to their stamp of approval though, its cover pulled me in, featuring a group of, most likely gossiping, white women sitting on a bench in what appears to be the early 60’s. Sullivan said the book would be transformative. Díaz that it was the book of the year, and still I had little idea what it would be about other than it was the author’s first book in 15 years and that he is not a white girl, but in a way is.

Hilton Als’ White Girls

Turns out that the process of categorizing White Girls by any means is pretty difficult. I guess you could call it a collection of lyric essays, but as I heard him speak of it recently in an interview, there’s definitely some crazy cool genre blends going on with fictional takes on historical people as well as invented persons from whose point-of-view Als writes with remarkable authenticity, grounding them in the lives of real people either by blood relation or interweaving stories.

What I like most about White Girls is that while the book explores what it means to navigate the world as a white woman, it isn’t exclusively  concerned with the genetic white woman. Yes, there are some great essays regarding Flannery O’ Connor or featuring the white women present in the world of high fashion, but there’s also an essay concerning Truman Capote’s self identification as a white woman, another theorizing Michael Jackson’s desire to be a white woman, and several essays about what white women mean to black men and women. Some might consider those to be a bit of a stretch of the premise, but in the actual delivery the essays function well together to illustrate just how malleable the notion of the ‘white woman’ is.

In the penultimate essay titled ‘You and Whose Army’ written from the point of view of Richard Pryor’s sister, the notion of the white woman remains present in spite of one never appearing in the narrator’s account of a female junkie’s abusive relationship with her straight-edge spouse. Abuse and frustration run through the book with ‘white women’ either resenting the impositions placed upon them by their perceived role or others resenting their perceived social mobility and ease of life.

Most satisfying about Al’s writing is that he recognizes his ability to render beautifully lyrical sentences, but he pulls back on that ability whenever the piece calls for a voice that stabs and punches rather than caresses.

Some day I’ll return to White Girls hopefully better able to understand and appreciate all his references as well the nuances of his sentences, which my feeble mind was sometimes compelled to write off as pretentious. With Als though, I don’t think that judgment can be so easily made. Every sentence of his whether written to deconstruct an image of Truman Capote, or exploring Pryor’s self-destructive tendencies does what it needs to do, and although I only understand the position of white girls and women a little more, I think I’m better off for having read Als’ book.


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