I’ve invited novelist Paul Beatty to meet me at a restaurant that no longer exists. Informed that the writer lives in the East Village, I’d suggested meeting at Alphabet Kitchen on Avenue A. It’s a nice, quiet place—perfect for an interview on a scorching June afternoon. The only problem is that it’s gone out of business, not even leaving a sign.
After sorting out this snafu, Beatty and I sit down—at a different, less imaginary eatery—and get to talking. Dressed in a faded T-shirt and jeans, with wire-rim glasses and temples gone glamorously gray, the 45-year-old Beatty looks like a younger brother to actor Andre Braugher. He orders a sizable lunch of cheeseburger, salad, and mashed potatoes—”I don’t get outside much,” he laughs—and commences to answer my barrage of questions. Beatty apologizes repeatedly for his replies, which he often finds lackluster, but his cheeseburger gets cold during our long talk about writing, the strange pull of YouTube videos, and L.A. traffic. “I’m always uncomfortable—99.9 percent of the time,” Beatty tells me by way of warning, but he looks relaxed enough holding forth. Perhaps the fresh air has done him some good.
After a lengthy break between books, Beatty’s long-anticipated third novel, Slumberland (published by Bloomsbury), has now hit stores. In his absence, a host of writers—like Colson Whitehead and Junot Díaz—have picked up where he left off, reaping acclaim and prizes for books that owe a significant debt to Beatty’s first two novels, The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Tuff (2000). “I hate this word, but there’s kind of a snarkiness to those guys that I have,” says Beatty.
Not that he minds the stylistic similarities; his new book sets off on an entirely different trajectory from his earlier works, one that maintains their fish-comically-out-of-water theme but is set in another time and place—post-Wall Germany. In Slumberland, beat-mixing mastermind DJ Darky leaves Los Angeles and heads for Berlin in search of legendary jazz musician Charles Stone; DJ Darky believes that Stone can provide the perfect topping for his aural sundae. It’s a book about an artist coming to terms with himself, and about the delirious oddity of Berlin just after the fall of Communism. Asked if Stone reminded him of anyone in particular, Beatty throws out some guesses, saying that the character owes something to both his mother and father: “Also, I got the idea from this guy, Henry Grimes. He used to play bass for Albert Ayler, then disappeared for a long time. A friend of mine sent me an article from Wired about a guy who tracked him down—Grimes was living in some SRO in L.A. I always love it when people say: ‘Fuck it, I’m gone!’ “
In another way, Stone—the visionary loner whose work is appreciated only by the select few—might be Beatty himself. The White Boy Shuffle—a bittersweet, comic coming-of-age story about a Santa Monica surfer kid whose family moves to the ghetto—received glowing reviews upon publication and is beloved in certain circles. Beatty, though, has never become a literary name in the way Whitehead or Díaz has. But being a little older than his cohorts—and perhaps a bit more grizzled—he’s made peace with his relative anonymity. “When I first started, I struggled with it a lot, you know: ‘I don’t make any money! I don’t have any readers!’ I’m too lazy to hit the pavement—and blog, and website. I’m lucky that I have someone who will publish me, and that I have some readership. It took me a while to get to that point, but I am.”
Beatty (who’s currently working on a project for HBO) is funny in person—how could the editor of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor not be?—but there’s also an undercurrent of melancholy, of middle-aged dissatisfaction with the ever-lowering standards of popular culture. Bemused by Internet ephemera like YouTube rapping sensation Reh Dogg, Beatty has little interest in the bulk of what passes for good these days. “I like 5 percent of everything,” he estimates. “There’s much more shit out there, but the percentage of what’s good stays the same.” Bored by American letters, Beatty reads mostly Japanese minimalist fiction. “There’s a guy, Osamu Dazai—he wrote these stories about fuckup postwar kids, drinking, drugs, all that kind of stuff. He’d talk about shit that no one else was talking about. He’d talk about things that made you uncomfortable.” When it comes to his new novel, Beatty can pinpoint only one particular influence: W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. “It was so free—just this beautiful spew.”
Slumberland took nearly five years to finish, in part because writing a novel, for Beatty, consists in slowly stockpiling good lines. “I’m not one of those people who’s like, ‘Characters are talking to me!‘ ” he notes with a laugh. The book also required immersing himself in a time and place he had formerly preferred to forget. Beatty lived in Berlin for a year and a half in the mid-1990s on a fellowship. There, he found himself surrounded by embarrassingly untalented wannabe artists; it was a difficult, lonely experience, though one that gave him lots of funny stories to share with his friends. “I’d always vowed I was never going to write about Berlin,” he remembers. “I think I got far enough removed from the time I was living there that I was comfortable dealing with it, you know?”
The book’s places, though, are half-real and half-imagined—like the titular locale: “The bar Slumberland . . . it was a place I would never go into. I’d walk by there all the time and peer into the window,” and let his imagination picture the goings-on inside. Beatty began the novel with an idea about a young boy getting involved with left-wing terrorists in Germany’s Red Army Faction, but no trace of that story remains in the finished book. Slumberland matches its predecessors as a portrait of a vibrant, rollicking city, like White Boy Shuffle‘s L.A. or Tuff‘s New York.
Some two hours later, the sun has receded, appetites are sated, and DVD recommendations have been exchanged. Alphabet Kitchen still hasn’t turned up, but our interview—and lunch—have been salvaged. With evening approaching, and his favorite time of day to work beginning, Beatty finishes his now-cold burger and walks down Avenue A, in the direction of home.