Paul Beatty

The White Boy Shuffle

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The White Boy Shuffle Summary

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The White Boy Shuffle is the first novel written by poet Paul Beatty. Published in 1996, the novel is a satiric coming-of-age tale, or bildungsroman, detailing the life of poet, basketball star, and self-described “Negro Demagogue” Gunnar Kaufman. The book also falls under the “New Black Aesthetic” and the “Post Soul Aesthetic—” newer genres coined by Trey Ellis and Mark Anthony Neal respectively. These aesthetics are based around the idea of the post-Civil Rights Era “cultural mulatto,” or someone who is able to successfully inhabit historically white spaces in society while still maintaining their black cultural identity.

In the prologue, Gunnar introduces himself as the book’s narrator. He explains that his book of poetry, Watermelanin, was a massive bestseller and its success helped him become a well-known political agitator in the black community. In his capacity as a “Negro Demagogue,” Gunnar advocates mass suicide as a form of extreme political protest. What follows, according to Gunnar, are his memoirs beginning with stories about his ancestors told to him and his sisters by their mother during childhood. This includes the tale of Euripides Kaufman, a free black man present at the Boston Massacre, who dodged the bullet that killed Crispus Attucks.

The story of Gunnar’s life begins in Santa Monica, California where he lives with his mother and sisters. Their largely absent father works as a sketch artist for the LAPD. Gunnar and his sisters fit in well in their wealthy, mostly white community. Their mother becomes concerned when they demonstrate a reluctance to spend time with other black youths who they claim are not “like them.” In response, Gunnar’s mother moves the family to the predominantly black West Los Angeles Hillside neighborhood. At first, Gunnar struggles to find acceptance in his new school, once incurring a beating from a local gang called the “Gun Totin’ Hooligans.” Eventually, however, Gunnar experiences a rise in popularity after he reveals a hidden talent for basketball and strikes up a friendship with the “thuggish” Nicholas Scoby, who helps him adjust his style and mannerisms to fit in better with his peers. He also becomes well-known because of his poetry, some of which gets published in magazines.

Despite his increased popularity, Gunnar is still teased for his lack of skills on the dance floor— his moves are derisively referred to as “The White Boy Shuffle—” and his awkwardness around women. One of his friends, a gang member named Psycho Loco, claims he plans to procure a Japanese mail-order bride for Gunnar. During the 1992 LA Riots, Gunnar and his friends were caught by police stealing a safe from a department store—the group of policemen includes Gunnar’s father, who beats him with a nightstick, landing him in the hospital. The following summer is detailed through emails Gunnar sends his friends and family from a camp for talented high school basketball players. Through these emails we learn that Gunnar’s sisters are pregnant and have moved in with Gunnar’s father. We also learn that Gunnar doesn’t really like basketball.

When summer comes to an end, Gunnar makes a deal with his father—Gunnar and his friends won’t be charged for the department store theft and in exchange Gunnar will attend an elite—
mostly white—high school in the Valley. He fits in well there but is disgusted by the arrogance and privilege of his new classmates. When it comes time for Gunnar to graduate, the armed forces, Harvard, and Boston University all express interest and Gunnar ultimately decides to attend BU. On Gunnar’s 18th birthday, a Japanese mail order bride (sent for by Psycho Loco) arrives via UPS. Her name is Yoshiko Katsu and she speaks very little English. Even so, Gunnar decides to marry her before heading off to college. In Boston, Gunnar finds that his creative writing classmates and professor are fans of his poetry and they convince him to publish the collection of poetry that will become Watermelanin.

Gunnar becomes involved with a number of student activist groups. After learning that Yoshiko is pregnant, Gunnar joins a travel basketball team with Scoby which leads to a further increase in his celebrity. Upon his return to Boston, Gunnar gives a speech at a rally during which he exclaims that rather than just giving speeches, black leaders should be “ready to die” for the cause. While he notes that he was referring only to his own death, the “freedom through suicide” movement he appears to advocate for catches on and Gunnar begins to receive “death poems” from Americans who felt inspired by Gunnar’s words to kill themselves. This includes Scoby, who flings himself off of the roof of the BU Law School. When asked when he plans to kill himself, Gunnar replies, “when I’m good and goddamn ready.”

After realizing that there is an outstanding warrant for his arrest by the LAPD, Gunnar and Yoshiko go into hiding. Gunnar attempts suicide by walking into the ocean but, deterred by thoughts of his unborn child, changes his mind. Gunnar and Yoshiko notice during their walks through the Hillside that they are being followed by a helicopter searchlight. The searchlight continues to hover above them even as Yoshiko gives birth to their daughter, Naomi. After the birth, the helicopter drops a box of cigars attached to a parachute with a note in Gunnar’s father’s handwriting expressing congratulations and the hope that Naomi will grow up with “respect for authority.” Gunnar spends the rest of the novel in hiding, giving poetry readings and cementing his status as a sort of cult leader by pulling stunts like cutting off his finger with a kitchen knife. The book ends with Gunnar telling Naomi the same stories his mother told him as a child. This includes the story of Gunnar’s father, whose “death poem” was found in his police locker following his suicide.

The White Boy Shuffle was the first of four novels written by Beatty who went on to win the 2016 Man Booker Prize. The book received a great deal of critical acclaim, but failed to achieve mainstream commercial success.