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Sunday, July 6, 2008

SLUMBERLAND

By Paul Beatty

Bloomsbury. 241 pp. $24.99

In Paul Beatty's new comic novel, an African American man known to the Los Angeles club crowd as DJ Darky, has a "phonographic memory" (he never forgets a sound). He's recently composed the perfect beat, a beat by which all other beats will be measured forevermore, but he needs a musical collaborator.

After the mailman delivers a mysterious German porn video, Sowell realizes the film's bow-chicka-wow-wow soundtrack is a song by Charles Stone, an obscure jazz genius known as the Schwa. So DJ Darky relocates to Berlin in search of the Schwa, taking a job as a "jukebox sommelier" at Slumberland, a West Berlin bar where white women go to meet black men.

All this is less a plot than a framework on which Beatty hangs some pretty funny ideas about music, race relations and love, along with waterfalls of wordplay that pool and merge like acid jazz on the page. It's a singular treatment of that heady time when the Wall was falling and East and West Berlin became Europe's ultimate mashup; as Sowell puts it, "The country had every manifestation of the post-1865 Union save Negro senators and decent peanut butter."

But Slumberland isn't just an excuse for pop culture riffs. Beatty takes a lapidary approach to his words, as in his description of a Berlin winter, with its "solid prison-blanket-gray skies that, combined with the smoky nightlife and the brogan solemnity of the Berlin footfall, give the city a black-and-white matinee intrigue."

With its dictionary delight mixed with cheerfully raunchy, tossed-off outrageousness, Slumberland is like a trip-hop Myra Breckinridge. (If Myra were plying her libidinous philosophy in contemporary America, it's easy to imagine her, like Sowell, dreaming of a "ménage a noir.") What Gore Vidal did for sex and gender constructs, though, Beatty does for race and prominent black Americans, with sacred cow-tipping on nearly every page. Wynton Marsalis won't be thrilled, nor will Oprah Winfrey, who makes a footnoted appearance buying up the artistic rights to the lives of all black Americans, 1642-1968, "carrying the historical burden that only she has the strength to bear."

All this fun comes to a too-abrupt end, when DJ Darky and the Schwa create a "Berlin Wall of Sound" that cleaves the united city again and Beatty slams the story shut as if he's bored with it. Slumberland isn't likely to be his mainstream breakthrough, but it's well worth checking out for any language lover with a wicked sense of humor. When Beatty is beating out his linguistic arpeggios, I could listen all day.

-- Kevin Allman is a critic based in New Orleans.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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