White Girls by Hilton Als

The Blurb On The Back:

White Girls is about, among other things, blackness, queerness, movies, Brooklyn, Love (and the loss of love), AIDS, fashion, Basquiat, Capote, philosophy, porn, Louise Brooks and Michael Jackson. Freewheeling and dazzling, tender and true, it is one of the most highly acclaimed essay collections in years. 

You can order WHITE GIRLS by Hilton Als from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Hilton Als is a Pulitzer Prize winning critic and an Associate Professor of Writing at Colombia University. In this collection of 13 smart and provocative essays (9 of which were first published in 2013) he tackles such subjects as race, homosexuality, AIDS, Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson and André Leon Talley and memory and although some of it went over my head (mainly due to unfamiliarity with the subject) I enjoyed his insight and passion.

TRISTES TROPIQUES is a personal essay about Als’s love and friendship with someone he refers to only as SL. It’s a personal and moving piece with Als sharing much of his life, his relationships, his experiences as a black and gay man and what it was like to love someone with AIDS during the height of people’s terror although the references to twinning and mirroring were slightly overdone for me.

THE WOMEN is a really clever and incisive essay about Truman Capote and how he adopted female and male personas within the body of his work and his relationship with female authors. For me, Als’s biographical essays are the sharpest in the collection and this one really gripped me in terms of his analysis of Capote and his work.

THIS LONESOME PLACE is an essay about Flannery O’Connor and how her work deals with race and was influenced by her Catholicism and her suffering of the condition lupus, but while it held my attention I have to say that some of it went over my head, in the main because I think you need to be more familiar with her work to get the most from his points.

GWTW is the acronym for Gone With The Wind and this fierce essay (which repeatedly uses the ‘n’ word) is about race and fear and violence and how GWTW shapes and epitomises the desire to overlook black suffering.

PHILOSOPHER OR DOG? Is another biographical essay and focuses on Malcolm X and how he shaped his own history, his relationship with his mother and the way he erases and diminishes her in his autobiography with Als using this to muse on otherness in a way that kept me completely hooked, not least because of his compassion for X’s mother.

WHITE NOISE is another biographical one that focuses on Eminem and how he draws on black music, producing music that both the black and white communities can identify with, mainly because of the way he conveys the emotion. Als is particularly strong on how he uses Eminem’s relationship with his mother and how it informed his work, which neatly ties in with how he writes about the relationship between Malcom X and his mother in the preceding essay.

MICHAEL is a powerful, compassionate and moving essay about Michael Jackson that draws on the relationships within his family (notably his mother and father), his mother’s faith as a Jehova’s Witness and Michael’s relationship with his blackness.

THE ONLY ONE is about André Leon Talley, the creative director of Vogue magazine and one of the few black men in a position of influence within the fashion industry. It’s another compassionate piece that doesn’t hide Talley’s quirks and difficulties and is scathing about the way he is treated by the white fashion world but this is one of those pieces that I suspect you get more from if you’re into fashion and that world than I am.

I AM THE HAPPINESS OF THIS WORLD is a biographical essay about Louise Brooks told from her perspective and again, while it’s wonderfully written it’s one of those pieces where you need to know more about who she was to get the most from it and to be honest, I’m not quite sure what the source of fascination with her is given what I’ve read about her on-line.

BUDDY EBSEN was one of the essays that went completely over my head. It seemed to be to be about Als and how queer identity helped form him as a person but to be honest, I was not familiar with a lot of the people referenced in the piece, which is why I found it so difficult to connect with.

A PRYOR LOVE was my favourite essay in the collection. Richard Pryor is the subject and Als brilliantly looks at the man and his career – his skills as a performer, how his personal life and need for confession informed his routines but also caused him to burn out emotionally and physically. I think Als is fantastic in this, piecing together Pryor’s life and behaviour, his interests and home life and marriages and it just kept me hypnotised from beginning to end and I completely loved the contributions from Lily Tomlin.

YOU AND WHOSE ARMY? by contrast was my least favourite essay in the collection. This is partly because it covers Richard Pryor again but mainly because Als creates a fictional sister for Pryor to analyse, again, his performance and comedy and also looking at James Baldwin and Diana Sands and the difficulties in being a sibling to a celebrity but, to be honest, this just struck me as such an artificial piece that I didn’t enjoy it and was uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

IT WILL SOON BE HERE is a meditative piece on memory and the urge to misremember and how damaging but also how healing that can be.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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