By Ray Sawhill
Victor D. LaValle has the kind of talent and energy that would make him a star in almost any writing workshop. Your reaction to his first collection of stories, though, is likely to depend on your reaction to his ambition for it, which appears to be to make the book approximate an hour or two of hip-hop videos.
The stories are grouped in two sections, both as portentously titled as the book itself. The first, “The Autobiography of New York Today,” offers a mini-panorama of the city and has the more extreme subject matter: a hustler eager to change his life, a young man obsessed with his ugliness. The stories in the second section, “One Boy’s Beginnings,” are more familiar: a long-absent father makes awkward attempts at conversation with his son; some bullies steal a kid’s bike.
LaValle’s writing, full of peculiarities of punctuation and phrasing, creates effects impressively close to the scratch-and-sample effects of rap; he has devised all kinds of ways of forcing the eye and mind to skip, stutter and retrace themselves. A case could be made that LaValle has found a way to give linguistic form to the brain patterns of media-soaked, post-PC street youth.
But readers less taken by the idea that literature should come out of a boombox are likely find the book tediously juvenile: full of attitude and posturing, tough/vulnerable in an overly familiar way and top-heavy with edgy production values.
© 1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review.