“What else is there but other people?” Hilton Als’ other half, SL, says in the beginning of White Girls. SL (“Sir or Lady”) is his muse. They’re not lovers but still inseparable; sharing an intimate friendship with a charismatic white woman he calls Mrs. Vreeland. While their friends and lovers die of AIDS, Vreeland also dies of an unnamed illness during an incomprehensible season of loss. Als describes SL, a black man, as an unreconstructed ’70s lesbian separatist. “No man could have him.”
The author says of himself, "I was a gay man who did not suck white dick: I refused on the grounds that the world sucked them off well enough."
Als is a regular theater critic and essayist for the New Yorker. After his introductory essay about his constellation of non-marrying queer friends and loves, he goes on to write essays about Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, Eminem, Michael Jackson, Malcolm X's mother and others; all folks he fits under the general label of "White Girls."
To get hung up on this conceit is missing the point. Falling into Hilton Als’ way of seeing the world is to both dismiss and adopt easy labels as one so desires. It’s simply the way he and his friends talk about things as citizens of a certain kind of New York City. And yes, just as a black man can be a white girl, a white girl can also be black—case in point being his 1998 essay in the New Yorker on why PJ Harvey is more of a soul singer in his definition of the word than Lauryn Hill.
He writes about Capote and O’Connor with an almost stodgy decorum. Flannery O’Connor, a working-class southern Catholic, was allergic to solipsistic deep thoughts, which allowed her to enact big ideas through the action of her characters rather than through description. Then, as if taking off a mask, Als’ essay follows him being asked to write an introduction to a book of photographs of lynchings.
"In writing this, I have become a cliché, another colored person writing about a nigger's life," he points out. In his earlier years, Als wanted to avoid being black identified at all, but now he says those who view him as a "nigger" have defined his world. He writes about everyday experiences he has had as a gay black man in New York, from choosing to cross the street before walking behind a white woman at night, to being swooped on by police with guns and flashlights while in a friend's car (they thought he was a carjacker.)
"Fact is if you are even halfway colored and male in America…the dead heads hanging from the trees in these pictures, and the dead eyes or grins surrounding them, it's not too hard to imagine how this is your life, too," he writes.
He follows this essay with another one of equal fury about the overly simplistic portrayal of Malcolm X's mother in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The core theme of both of Als' books (Girls is superseded by 1998's The Women), is his desire and failure to write honestly about women, namely his mother. He views this problem as one shared by writers of color as a whole, a certain compulsive need to write about Mom under the umbrella of "otherlike-myself," and with a "mask of piety," instead of with truthfulness. For Als, this is a horror. "Writers of color write stupidly on this wall of race for the approval of very stupid people who, in granting their approval, may decide not to kill you. If these stupid people decide not to kill you, something must be compromised, given up. Generally what is compromised is one's voice."
These two essays left me with a whiplash that made it hard to concentrate on his s
tately portraits of Eminem and Michael Jackson. I began to feel like Als was hiding behind his role as a critic. "What else is there but other people?" You, Hilton! You! Then I sat down and cried reading his essay on Louise Brooks, written in the first person. He stepped into her. "I wrote and drank for 16 years in that little room in Rochester. Loneliness is what every writer deserves for all their ruthless betrayals—telling other people's stories their way."
Nothing however, hinted at the psychedelic heartwrenching fugue state that t ends the book. "You and Whose Army" is the longest essay in the collection and is written from the perspective of Richard Pryor's sister, a woman who works doing voiceovers for pornographic films. It is fiction. The topic is female meanness, "the thickest substance known to man." Pryor's sister frames the tortured life of the standup comedian in relation to this substance and also, I am guessing, the life of Als. How else to explain the appearance of Gary, a well-meaning overly dutiful junkie and his wife Fran, who destroys him.
"He was always waiting for love to be what he thought of it: an event informed by niceness," she says of Gary, who had never known a woman like Fran growing up, a woman who "enjoyed the image she had of herself, dressed only in her bra and panties, hair half done, wearing a pair of cracked yellow gloves. The gloves were a distinctly domestic touch, and therefore useless, which interested her." Fran trashes his house and his finances and humiliates him at every turn. Gary and Fran create a kind of madcap theater of race and gender much like that found in George C Wolfe's The Colored Museum, a groundbreaking play that cemented the truth that some issues are just too drudgingly painful to take on directly and must be enacted through extreme drag and grotesquery. "An actress is a liar," the sister narrates. "An actress's soul is whatever you're paying her to shape it as at the time. Why do men fall for it?" He continues, "The hope you all have that women will act differently—somewhere, somehow—is just that: your hope. Actresses are themselves, if only they had one. Women are themselves, if only they could stop acting."
There. Your mother wouldn't say it, so Als does. Such a taboo statement would just come off as venomous were it not for the carefully wrought context in which the author speaks it. Taking his cue from O'Connor, where the white girl resides in this crux of agony is never explained, but left for the reader to contemplate amidst his characters' tragic fates.