Hilton Als plays with identity and sets the reader’s mind on uncharted courses of thought in his new book, White Girls.
Longtime New Yorker staffer Hilton Als has written an unusual book with White Girls (McSweeney's, November 2013) It’s been described as being “about” “white girls,” a category reimagined in his sensitive assessment of race and gender to include Richard Pryor and Michael Jackson. This is only partly true. Als writes about these people—along with his mother and sisters, Eminem, Louise Brooks and Vogue editor André Leon Talley—but in a way that shifts constantly and is impossible to categorize neatly.
In one piece he begins with an incisive reading of Eminem’s lyrics and ends on an imagined scene in a nonexistent Sam Peckinpah film of the artist’s life, in which Marshall Mathers the child is shot from above as he sings a song from Lee Breuer’s play The Gospel at Colonus. Another essay is a tender profile of Richard Pryor that originally ran in the New Yorker; the one immediately following it is a genre-bender told from the profane and highly intellectual point of view of Pryor’s sister, who describes her work as a porn film voice-over actress. This is cultural criticism as only Als can do it.
And though Als is a next-level thinker, the emotions in this book get dirty and real. When he rummages through his personal history his language is challenging and rough in its sadness, echoing the attitude of his only other book—first published 17 years ago—The Women. He has a tremendous, almost crushing affection for his subjects, but his treatment of them is often formal and slightly stiff, and insightful as an X-ray. Some of the pieces encourage further investigation (Did Richard Pryor have a sister? Looks that way. Did she work in the porn industry? Don’t know.) and that seems to be the point. Als plays with identity, raises as many questions as he answers, and sets the reader’s mind on uncharted courses of thought. He is above all a writer fascinated by people: their little habits and turns of phrase, their multi-layered sexualities, and their unfathomable relationships to each other or, in the case of his famous subjects, to the world.
In a recent event at Strand Book Store in New York City, Hilton Als talked about White Girls: