City Paper is not for tourists
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” The opening ofUlysses doesn’t exactly leap from the page, but James Joyce eventually erects a literary Dublin that immerses readers in his peculiar lexicon. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ life story is less epic, but in his memoir,The Beautiful Struggle, he borrows from Joyce’s playbook: He re-creates a particular geography with a particular language, offering a street-level view of what it’s like to be young, black, and from Baltimore. Don’t expect The Wire in book form-Coates, a former City Paper staff writer, writes about living in the ghetto trying to get the hell out, but he wasn’t a typical corner boy. He was raised among a horde of step-siblings by Paul Coates, a polyamorous, vegetarian, former Black Panther who fathered seven children by four women. Dad’s mission for his sons was simple: Grow up, become politicized, attend “the Mecca” (Howard University), and continue the revolution. “Walk like you got business,” Coates’ father tells him. Problem is, Coates can’t decide what his business is. He’s a dreamer, reading Black Panther newspapers at his father’s basement publishing operation (the still-active Black Classic Press) and finding inspiration in Chuck D’s conscious hip-hop while failing out of school and sneaking bottles of Mad Dog with his older brother. As Coates negotiates his father’s ideological hangover and the ’80s crack epidemic, choosing dorm life over thug life in the ’90s, The Beautiful Struggleputs an edge on a familiar coming-of-age tale at least as old as The Catcher in the Rye. There’s a difference, of course: King WASP Holden Caulfield could always enroll in another cushy private school or take refuge in the lush life on the Upper West Side, but Coates was writing for his life. The Beautiful Struggle opens with Coates’ father rescuing him from rival neighborhood kids. “They sported the Stetsons of Hollis, but with no gold,” Coates writes of his brush with the enemy. “They were shadow and rangy, like they could three-piece you—jab, uppercut, jab—from a block away.” At first blush, his prose frustrates; any reader unfamiliar with this turf has to acclimate to Coates’ slangy style. But The Beautiful Struggle’s world isn’t well-served by the Queen’s English, and any culture shock that Coates’ prose generates doesn’t detract from the book’s quiet power. Coates cobbles his memoir together from information absorbed piecemeal over three decades, and though his tale is disorganized, it’s consistently intimate. “All our names were alien,” Coates writes of a trip to a summer camp for revolutionary black youth, complete with African drumming and screenings of Gordon Parks Jr.’s blaxploitation classic Three the Hard Way. “I lost myself there, felt confirmed and the freedom of being unoriginal.” Coates’ language mirrors this awakening—his portrait of the writer as a young man strands his readers in unfamiliar territory, then guides them through a surprisingly heartwarming tale of a boy growing up. Joyce painstakingly mappedUlysses to get to “Yes!”—a “Yes!” to adulthood, a “Yes!” to a relationship, and a “Yes!” to coming home again. Coates’ path to maturity is subtler, with no exclamation points, but it’s a “yes” all the same.