MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Excerpt from Slumberland by Paul Beatty, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by Paul Beatty

Slumberland by Paul Beatty X
Slumberland by Paul Beatty
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2008, 256 pages
    Aug 2009, 256 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

The windowless Acapulco room has the macabre feel of a Tijuana cancer clinic. Like the liquor stores, ball courts, and storefront churches back in the old country, Berlin tanning salons are ubiquitous sanctuaries. Places of last resort for the terminally ill, the terminally poor and sinful, the terminally pale. Places where you go when the doctors tell you there’s nothing more they can do.When the world tells you you’re not doing enough.

A ceiling fan churns efficiently through the musty air. On one dingy aquamarine wall hang two framed, official-looking pieces of parchment, one an inspection certificate from the Berlin Department of Health and Safety, and the other, written in ornate script, a degree from the College of Eternal Harvest in something called Solarology. In the middle of the room sits the tanning bed, a glass-and-chrome-plated panacea from heaven or, more accurately, Taiwan. I undress and lotion up, leaving the door open just a crack.

After years of tanning, my skin has lost much of its elasticity. If I pinch myself on the forearm, the little flesh mound stays there for a few seconds before slowly falling back into place. My complexion has darkened somewhat; it’s still a nice, nonthreatening sitcom Negro brown, but now there’s a pomegranate-purple undertone that in certain light gives me a more villainous sheen. Half of my information on what’s new in African-American pop culture comes from Berliners stopping me on the street and saying, Du siehst aus wie . . . , and then I go home and look up Urkel, Homey the Clown, and Dave Chappelle on the Internet. Lately the resemblances have been to the more sinister, swarthy characters from B-movie adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s pulp fiction.

I rent these movies - Jackie Brown, Out ofSight, Get Shorty - and watch them while running back and forth from the TV screen to the bathroom mirror. I think I look nothing like these men, these bad, one-note character actors whose only charisma seems to be the bass in their voices and the inflection in the way they say motherfucker. Sam Jackson, Don Cheadle, the chubby asshole from Be Cool, they’re always smart and dark, but never smart enough to outwit the white guy or dark enough to commit any really heinous crimes.

I often think it would’ve been easier to have grown up in my father’s generation. When he came up, there were only four niggers he could look like: Jackie Robinson, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Louis Armstrong, and Uncle Ben, the thick-lipped man in the chef’s hat on the box of instant rice. Today every black male looks like someone. Some athlete, singer, or celluloid simpleton. In Daddy’s day, if you described a black man to somebody who didn’t know him, you’d say he looks like the type of nigger who’d kick your natural ass; now you say he looks like Magic Johnson or Chris Rock, the type of nigger who’d kiss your natural ass.

Most liniments are cool and soothing, but this isn’t the case with sunblock. The stuff smells like brine and has the consistency of rancid butter. My dingy skin seems to repel it. No matter how hard I rub, I can’t get the cream to disappear, much less moisturize. The greasy swirls just sit there on my skin like unbuffed car wax. I silence the ceiling fan with a firm pull of the cord. If the fan has slowed down or sped up, I can’t tell. One more yank. Same difference. Clumsily, I climb onto the tanning bed and raise my hand until the fan’s blades skip across my fingers and gradually come to a stop. There’s an oily, linty residue on my hand, which I wipe off on the wall.

I put on the goggles. The tanning bed is cold but soon warms up. Like a childhood fever, tanning heats you from the inside out. My ash-white bones become calcium coals, briquettes of the soul. Soon I’m back in my bottom bunk, the ultraviolet radiation substituting for my overprotective mother piling blanket after quilt after blanket on her baby boy. The warmth from the lamps becomes indistinguishable from that of my mother’s dry, calloused hands. My own skin seems to vitrify, and while I have any range of motion in my arms I slip a CD into the built-in stereo and press play.

Excerpted from Slumberland by Paul Beatty Copyright © 2006 by Paul Beatty. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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