By Touré. Little, Brown. 184 pp. $19.95
It is increasingly difficult to read a novel on its own terms. Even if you tear off the dust jacket, scrub the author photo and ignore the promotional blurbs, someone, somewhere (whether professional critic, blogger or even the author himself) is just desperate to tell you whether this book and, especially, its writer are cool or not. The writer is not just a writer; he's a brand with specific attributes. To consume his work is to make a statement about yourself as surely as if your chest were emblazoned with a fashion designer's logo.
I like to avoid all that irritating paraphernalia and make up my own mind on the basis of what's between the covers. In the case of Touré's "Soul City," however, this is hardly possible.
After all, Touré is a celebrated and, indeed, celebrity journalist: a pop cultural commentator who's now famous enough to have become part of the pop culture on which he comments. This guy is already a brand. And in this instance perhaps it's no bad thing to check out the hype, since the biography on Touré's Web site (www.toure.com) told me more about "Soul City" than the book itself. The biography quotes Tina Brown, who labels her fellow celebrity journalist "a one-man media conglomerate." Right. That its author can be so described somehow makes sense of the fact that "Soul City" is, in truth, barely a novel.
Touré's story, as far as it goes, is simple. Cadillac Jackson, a journalist for Chocolate City Magazine, is sent to Soul City to cover the mayoral election. This isn't your average political contest, however, because here "the mayor's prime function is to DJ for the town." Accordingly, "this year's ballot consisted of the Jazz Party's Coltrane Jones, the Hiphop Nation's Willie Bobo, and the Soul Music Party's Cool Spreadlove." In fact, though, Jackson's true motivation is to write a book about Soul City itself. And so is Touré's.
At first, it's entertaining enough. Touré is a fine writer with an ear for the warmer rhythms and cadences of idiom. Occasionally, such as when he describes the men on a street as "cooling down the block with walks of such visible rhythm, physical artistry, and attention to aesthetics that it looked like a pimp-stroll convention,'' he can come off like Iceberg Slim melted by sunshine. But I wasn't more than 50 pages in before I began to wonder where it was all going.
Soul City seems to be a kind of African American utopia as imagined by someone raised on the pop-culture staples and stereotypes of black identity -- someone who found his politics in Public Enemy, his history in watching "Roots" and his hero in John Shaft. Can you dig it? Soul City's central monument is a 100-foot-tall, black-fist-shaped afro pick. Its legal system relies on the twin threats of violence from a good-natured thug called Hueynewton Payne and "gossip bombs" dropped by Ubiquity Jones, the local busybody who "always discovered your biggest secret and unveiled your dirtiest laundry in public at the most compromising moment possible." Its politically conscious citizens relive the "Slavery Experience," taking a year out to pick cotton in fields at the edge of the city, suffer the "massa's" whip and remember their history. Its religious citizens worship at St. Pimp's House of Baptist Rapture and listen to its charismatic pastor, 10-year-old Revren Lil' Mo Love. Residents feed on Granmama's biscuits, get high on an aurally administered drug called Bliss and drive customized rides that reflect the personality of the owners' favorite recording artists. So far, so cute. But there isn't room for subtlety in this town, unless Subtlety is one of the kids playing double Dutch.
As a novel, "Soul City" has two major flaws: plot and character. There is no plot, and there are no characters. Instead Touré cobbles together a series of fantastical anecdotes, some funny and some fatuous (from the story of JimiMan, born with Hendrix's soul, to that of Unicorn Johnson, the owner of, you guessed it, the world's biggest penis). Instead Touré's players are all caricatures of one black stereotype or another. Of course, I don't doubt this is the author's plan. But I find it far harder to get a handle on what the reasoning behind that plan could be.
This is presumably supposed to be satire that intends to demonstrate the absurdity of stereotypes about African Americans by pushing them to their extremes, perhaps even reclaiming them. If so, "Soul City" asks an interesting question: Can a novel be satirical simply because that's the author's intention? I think not. At its best, satire should, through biting comedy, reveal a truth that is unpalatable and taboo and would otherwise remain unspoken (as in, say, Joseph Heller's exposure of the tragic flaws of military bureaucracy and his undermining of the archetypes of heroism in "Catch-22"). However, although "Soul City" is sometimes funny, its targets and its whole style are too obvious, cozy and unchallenging. Surely, for example, the "Slavery Experience" as some kind of theme park for the culturally bereft shouldn't present such easy reading.
Once my dad came into the room when I was watching MTV. It was some hip-hop video with a rapper counting out dollar bills while two bootylicious babes shook what their mother (and a good surgeon) gave them. To my surprise, my dad thought it was hilarious. He said, "This is a joke, right?" I said I didn't think so. He told me it had to be and I should lighten up.
Maybe he's right, and maybe it was a joke. In fact, maybe all hip-hop is satire, and maybe "Soul City" is satire, too. But maybe not. The stereotyping of race in popular culture is undoubtedly a rich source of comedy but to tap it requires subtlety and perspective, and I suspect Touré is just too close to his subject matter.
One final discovery from Touré's online biography. It describes his first foray into creative writing at Columbia University. It was "the story of Sugar Lips Shinehot, a 1940 Harlem saxophonist who loses his ability to see white people," he tells us. "For some reason, that class full of white people loved the story and a fiction career was born." For some reason? Surely that's disingenuous. Both he and I know exactly what the reason was: Those white people loved the story because he gave them access to a magical, archetypal black world that welcomed them even in its hostility. They'll love "Soul City," too; just like their kid brothers love hip-hop. And one suspects that Touré, like the superstar rappers he interviews on MTV, will be laughing all the way to the bank.