To call White Girls, the latest book from New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, a “collection of essays about white girls” misses the point. It is, and it isn’t. Are these meditations, so full of speculation and invention and apocrypha, “essays”? Are the cultural personae examined therein “white girls”? Ascribing one genre to this collection would feed into the series of labels and limitations under which everyone and everything gets filed, especially when examining artifacts of pop culture—labels Als himself must ascribe to, such as “gay,” “black,” “critic,” “middle-aged,” or “New Yorker.” These musings dabble in memoir, essay, cultural criticism, even speculative fiction involving some intersection of real people and fictional characters. According to Als, the subjects of these essays—Truman Capote, Eminem, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor among them—all reveal themselves to be white girls, to some extent or other.
Intentionally abrasive and going out of his way to be canon-shattering, Als interweaves personal revelation with cultural touchstones, sometimes hopping from topic to topic at a breakneck speed, other times examining concepts so strategically and methodically his words become scalpels, flaying open unacknowledged bias, privilege, and conflict where he sees it. He spares no one, most especially himself, in his critique of the folly and blatant need inherent in most human behavior, particularly in the creation of art. In the stunning opening piece, “Tristes Tropiques,” Als ponders his 30-year friendship (or to use his word, “twinship”) with a straight black man following the death of Als’ partner and the eventual yet inevitable breakup of that relationship. He follows this with insightful ruminations into the work and lives of Capote and Flannery O’Connor.
One of the book’s most affecting and shortest musings, “Gone With The Wind,” examines two cultural documents that have interweaved themselves into Als’ consciousness about slavery and its ever-extending legacy in America’s conversation about race: lynching photography and the 1939 film from which the essay gets its name. When identifying the traps writers “of a color” may fall into when they fail to dissect the mask of piety inherent to writing about race—traps such as “otherness” and “difference”—Als is determined not to succumb to the usual expectations and obfuscations when having a conversation about the intersection of race, gender, class, art, and history.
Throughout the most book, Als successfully walks the fine line of being a philosopher-reporter—the exception being the brief outing on former Vogue editor André Leon Talley, which just comes across as mean-spirited and spiteful.
And the writer is at his most effective in that dual role in the two lengthy examinations of Richard Pryor that appear toward the end of the book. The first is a straightforward profile, heavily quoted and researched, appropriately critical and reverential. The second is a speculative memoir written by (Als’ imagining of) Pryor’s unnamed older sister and includes an extended riff on her preparations for an audition for David Simon’s 2000 HBO miniseries, The Corner. There are no explanations or transitions given as to why she suddenly began considering the lives of “Gary” and “Fran.” That’s for the reader to figure out.
Though astounding in its scope and erudition, the book isn’t entirely without fault. Anyone who’s read 1996’s The Women will recognize the bare bones of previous Als writings, particularly the consideration of Louise Little, mother of Malcolm X. And it can be disorienting to explore the similar themes in Prince lyrics and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, or to consider why the truest Eminem biopic would be a film directed by Sam Peckinpah. Yet while this (perhaps intentional) failure to establish a rhythm can give readers whiplash, Als skillfully and seductively reels them back in with a well-placed throwaway line that is so utterly poignant as to take one’s breath away.