The metaphor of cool
Writer Donnell Alexander passed through Chico, on his way to Ghetto Celebrity, a memoir on how he found his voice and relocated his missing father
Over the years, I have become very good at getting out of things I don’t want to do,” Southern novelist Walker Percy wrote in the foreword to John Kennedy Toole’s comic masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces. Percy was describing a series of incidents that happened when he was teaching at Loyola University in 1976. A woman, soon identified as Toole’s mother, had been rather persistent in trying to get Percy to read a badly smeared carbon manuscript of a novel that her dead son had written.
Percy balked but ultimately relented and started reading. “First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit,” he wrote, “then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: Surely it was not possible that it was so good.”
Now for a few subtle differences: Writer Donnell Alexander is very much alive; he’s living in Los Angeles, these days about 10 minutes from Dodger Stadium. I am not Walker Percy; I am not even a published novelist, nor do I teach. And Alexander’s book, Ghetto Celebrity: Searching for My Father in Me, which was published by the Crown division of Random House in June, is not a novel.
Instead, Ghetto Celebrity is a freewheeling memoir that careens from Alexander’s early years in the Midwest out to California—up and down the Central Valley, over to San Francisco and down to Los Angeles, across the country to New York and then back to Los Angeles. The book chronicles a writer finding his voice—first at Sacramento City College’s paper, the Express; then at the California State University, Fresno, paper the Daily Collegian; then at the Sacramento News & Review as a freelancer and the Chico News & Review as a staff writer; and then at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the LA Weekly and a variety of publications, including ESPN The Magazine.
In all honesty, the book sat in my valise for a month. Melinda Welsh, who held the editor position at the SN&R in the early 1990s, had given Alexander his first post-college writing job. She now works there as an editor-at-large, and she edits the book reviews in that paper. She pushed a copy in this direction, with the caveat that some of the book’s reviews have been slightly less than flattering.
Dunno why I waited so long to get to it.
Recently, I got Alexander on the phone from Los Angeles. He’d been playing NCAA 2003 on Nintendo GameCube with his 7-year-old son, Forrest. “He was kicking my butt,” Alexander said, laughing. “I’m playing Toledo; he’s Arizona State. He’s got a slight advantage.”
Ghetto Celebrity, he told me, was not born from the same lofty aspirations that fuel many authors’ meticulously calculated publishing debuts. “It was supposed to be a fast read,” Alexander said. “That was the whole intent.”
The book came about when Dave Eggers (editor of the literary magazine McSweeney’s and author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and You Shall Know Our Velocity!) approached Alexander with a deal. “I had six months to finish the book, and it was written in that six months,” Alexander said. “I tried to make it something that you can finish in a night.”
He added that Ghetto Celebrity was conceived to reach kids who aren’t readers, or who at least aren’t regular consumers of hard-bound books. “I’m amazed that [Crown] let me put it out like I did,” he confessed. “The whole intent was for it to feel unedited. And it took a lot of editing to make it feel unedited.”
This is not to say that the putatively rough-hewn style of Ghetto Celebrity makes it a bad book. Alexander has a definite facility for language, swerving back and forth between straightforward narrative and black-English idioms the way a jazz musician can play a chorus of a standard tune and then lurch into blowing “outside” for 32 or 64 bars before locking back into the melody, right on the beat.
And many of the first-person stories in Ghetto Celebrity are flat-out funny, the kind that make you laugh out loud and then put the book down, stare into space and think, “Yeah, his experience is a bit different from mine, but it’s similar enough to generate the same emotional resonance afterward, and I have felt exactly like that.”
When the book is firing on all cylinders, which is at least half the time, what puts it across is that Alexander doesn’t pull many punches, even when it makes him look less than flattering—getting wasted on alcohol and various drugs and stepping out on his fiancée. Unfortunately, the narrative jumps back and forth between Alexander’s own history and his family’s apocrypha so often that sometimes it’s hard to follow: The all-important flow gets messed up.
Ghetto Celebrity opens with the 12-year-old Alexander getting high on weed for the first time before going into a brief history of how his mother, the strait-laced Brenda Graham, hooked up with Delbert Alexander, a small-time hood, would-be James Brown-style R&B singer and future inmate, in 1961. Though Delbert recedes into the background, physically, before Alexander becomes old enough to form words, his specter haunts the rest of the book.
Alexander grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, a small town on the Erie shore, with a mother who’d become a nurse and a Jehovah’s Witness. After a blunted adolescence in Ohio’s equivalent of the New Jersey dead ends that Bruce Springsteen sings about, Alexander turned up in Sacramento in 1985—the same week the Kings arrived from Kansas City, he remembered. (By a twist of fate, both of Alexander’s long-estranged parents also ended up in Sacramento, where they still live, as does his sister.)
Somewhere along the way, Alexander fell in love with stringing words together. He began to fashion a mix of sports, pop culture and music, much of it hip-hop, while at the Express, which he laughingly dismissed in the book as “butt-wipe journalism.” In Fresno, he partied so hard he ended up back in Sacramento, around the time he became a freelancer for the Sacramento News & Review. Then, in September 1991, he got a full-time job at the Chico News & Review and two years later parlayed that into a gig at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. After a staff upheaval at the LA Weekly, that paper offered Alexander a job, and he moved south.
“I totally bought the whole alternative-press thing,” he recalled. “I came out of school in ‘91—didn’t even finish. I was supposed to get this job at The Seattle Times. Didn’t happen. I thought the alternative-paper experience was going to change the world. I mean for me, it changed my world.”
Alexander eventually burned out on writing for weeklies, but he continued freelancing widely. A 1997 piece by Alexander in the now-defunct Might magazine—"Are Black People Cooler Than White People?"—offers a prime slice of how his gift had matured. It’s a stellar meditation on the intersection between blacks and whites and how blacks’ penchant for combining throwaway elements into something wonderful and new is the engine that drives American popular culture.
“Cool,” he wrote, “the basic reason blacks remain in the American cultural mix, is an industry of style that everyone in the world can use. It’s finding the essential soul while being essentially lost. It’s the nigga metaphor. And the nigga metaphor is the genius of America.”
Write like that, and soon the big boys will come calling. And they did, in the form of Disney—which was starting a new publication called ESPN The Magazine and wanted a swaggering black voice like Alexander’s to give it cred.
Much of the latter third of Ghetto Celebrity is taken up with Alexander describing ESPN’s sometimes comic seduction of him, along with the disintegration of his marriage to photographer Amy Osburn, whom he’d met in Chico. By that point, Alexander and Osburn had moved to Brooklyn; he was flying around the country on Disney’s dime, hunting down the real story of sports stars Latrell Sprewell or Leonard Little between meetings in ESPN’s Manhattan offices—where, according to Alexander, the staff was better versed in the minutiae of Seinfeld narrative arcs than on what was happening in the world of sports.
After ESPN and completing Ghetto Celebrity, Alexander moved back to Los Angeles. In retrospect, he has a few second thoughts. “My editor sent me an e-mail last week, and I [wrote back and] said, ‘Honestly, I wish I’d never written this fuckin’ book,'” he confessed. “I wish I’d just stayed, and I was like the seventh-tier negro at ESPN, and get to do my little shtick and maybe get to be on TV every once in a while, make 90 grand a year.”
Some of that remorse might be attributed to the struggle of marketing any new book in a publishing world dominated by Harry Potter-style home runs or to the fact that he isn’t getting a regular paycheck. And though some reviews have been less than laudatory, those reviewers who called Alexander out for having an egocentric tone are missing the point. The oral tradition Alexander celebrates, of which hip-hop is the latest manifestation, often relies on a protagonist whose self-expression is closer to pimp roll than to self-reflective reticence. Still, the underlying tone of Ghetto Celebrity contains enough humility to anchor it in the real world. And Alexander certainly does not come off as any kind of egomaniac.
“I don’t think I’m the best writer in the world,” he said. “I mean, now that I’m out of it. I felt like I was hot shit, definitely. But now that I’ve finished the book, I feel like persistence was the strength of the whole enterprise. If I can just get to the next level, I can do something really well.”
It should be pointed out that Alexander, at 37, is still a little young for a memoir. His best work lies ahead.