NONFICTION: In this collection of essays, Hilton Als makes unexpected, occasionally breathtaking comparisons between disparate artists.
There’s a lot to admire in Hilton Als’ “White Girls,” but the sheer range of topics covered may represent the apex of these plaudits. Als, perhaps best known for his cultural criticism for the New Yorker, is here navigating complex territory. As the title might suggest, questions of race and gender are raised repeatedly, as are those of sexuality and geography. Among the book’s highlights is an examination of how Flannery O’Connor explored race in the South in a way that few, if any, of her contemporaries did — though Als does raise a mournful note in that O’Connor’s adherence to Southern customs prevented her from meeting James Baldwin late in her life. It’s moments like these, facts that turn a narrative around, and suggest potentiality stifled, that make this work distinctive and resonant.
“White Girls” opens with “Tristes Tropiques,” a long remembrance of several friendships ended by mortality or (emotional) distance. In describing the man referred to in the essay as “Sir or Lady,” Als notes that “I was attracted to him from the first because I am always attracted to people who are not myself but are.”
That description hangs over the rest of the book; while “Tristes Tropiques” is the most overtly personal work here, those questions of selfhood and attraction are felt in his explorations of writers, artists and musicians from Eminem to Truman Capote to fashion editor André Leon Talley.
Throughout, Als makes convincing connections between towering artistic figures that may not have been obvious: Gertrude Stein and Richard Pryor, for one. Certain figures, real and fictional, arise again and again: Jordan Baker, but also Virginia Woolf.
The penultimate essay, “You and What Army?” both picks up a thread of language from the previous “A Pryor Love” and takes with it disparate threads, from an examination of the film industry to a further discussion on the importance and contradictions of Richard Pryor to a long riff on Woolf’s concept of Judith Shakespeare.
This is heady stuff, but Als’ tone is knowledgeable without ever feeling as though the reader needs an advanced degree to comprehend it.
Not all of these pieces click: A monologue from the perspective of Louise Brooks consists largely of a recitation of biographical facts. It’s the rare section of “White Girls” that doesn’t provide abundant insights and synthesis of what might be previously known.
But overall, the book imparts a fantastic array of knowledge, from perceptive takes on Capote and gender to the transposition of De La Soul’s aesthetic onto a beloved figure.
In “White Girls,” Als does what the best cultural criticism provides a space for: offering a new way to interpret the world.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.