It took Bill Campbell six weeks to write his latest novel, Koontown Killing Kaper.
“I was listening to an NPR report about ghetto lit and how it represents 80 percent of books written for and about African-Americans,” says Campbell. “That’s just so extreme. It’s either write ghetto lit or go to Stockholm and win the Nobel Prize. After that report, I was so incensed that I just wrote the book—-incensed with a sense of humor.”
The satirical novel’s main character is Genevieve Noire, a former supermodel turned detective working to solve the murders of rappers in the place called Koontown. It’s a place where stereotypes of African-Americans are exaggerated to their highest possible degree: You have your thugs, your uncouth slang, and your notions of black sexuality. If D.W. Griffith lived in Koontown, he would’ve been giddy and filming every moment.
The cast of characters stretches from the slightly human—-like Det. William O’Ree and hip-hop executive Hustle Beamon—-to the wildly anachronistic, such as a character named Welfare Queen, a reference to President Ronald Reagan’s racist characterization.
Campbell, 42, lives near College Park, Md., and for the past 11 years, has worked for a company that produces audio books for the blind for the Library of Congress. Koontown Killing Kaper is his fourth self-published book; he previously wrote one about an intergalactic soldier who re-examines his status as a hero of Earth, and another that he describes as a “romantic comedy for nerds.” He has another titled Pop Culture: Politics, Puns, and ‘Poohbutt’,” a collection of blog posts.
With Koontown Killing Kaper, his first book that he describes as pure satire, Campbell says he is attempting to examine pop-cultural stereotypes of black Americans by exaggerating them to extremes. “The principle function of satire is to question their assumptions,” he says. “Hollywood has co-opted the whole idea of satire, making it almost light-hearted. But a satire is supposed to punch you in the mouth and use your teeth as a necklace. [I was trying to] take it back to that.”
Koontown Killing Kaper was published early this year and although the response at local book events has been positive, Campbell says some people don’t understand the novel as satire and found the material offensive. “Some people get it,” he says. “Some people will laugh for the right reasons and others will laugh for the exact wrong reasons. You’ll get a reaction. And that’s pretty much what I wanted.”
The characters in the book are like a Rorschach test, then. The point of the book, Campbell says, is to question the images of race we have in our heads. African-American men are more likely to go to college than end up in prison, Campbell says, yet in the popular imagination, we mostly see African-American men behind bars—-or simply as “dangerous.” “When you treat it like a monolithic culture, your humanity is denied,” Campbell says. “[I wanted] to show the diversity that our community is, then we can start dealing with problems that exist within and without communities, in a more humane and effective fashion. This goes from criminal justice to affirmative action. You can treat them as human rather than some demographic or social ill. If we were treated human 30 years ago, the war on drugs would’ve never happened.”
So if Campbell’s goal is to debunk stereotypes, why does his book play with them? For starters, Campbell says he’s not concerned his work will be misinterpreted. “I never wrote for a target audience. That’s for marketers. I didn’t go to business school. I’m an artist,” he says. “I just assumed when I was writing it, no one would like it. But I just had to write it, I just had to get it off my chest. Satire is a double-edged sword. Coon with the bullet hole in the forehead. A black militant can wear that. An Aryan brother skinhead can wear it. That’s the whole idea of making people considering their own assumptions. Humor and satire can question in a way than if I just said it to you.”
Campbell will sell and sign copies of his book from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 15 at the H Street Festival.