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Self-Absorbed Like Me
By John Dicker

Ghetto Celebrity
By Donnell Alexander, Crown, 288 pages, $22.95

Presumably, Donnell Alex ander wrote a midlife memoir because he wants to impart a few truths: Just because he married a white girl doesn’t mean he’s not as authentically ghetto as any gat-strapped thug lifer holding court outside your liquor store. He’d also like you to know that he’s had quite a lot of sex with fawning Caucasian honeys, has run the gamut of trendy West Coast hallucinogens, and is perhaps the most talented hiphop journalist of his generation. In short, Donnell Alexander is a lot cooler than you.

Raised by his mother in a small-town Ohio ghetto, Alexander never materialized as a student or track star. So he headed to California to claw his way through community college where, despite never graduating, he found his voice at student newspapers writing what he describes as “buttwipe journalism.”

Though out in hardcover, Ghetto Celebrity is much better suited for Nerf: I longed to scrunch it into a ball and punt it across my living room, but always with the intention of returning to it later. Alexander’s tiresome (and obscure) hiphop voice includes prose delicious enough to merit rereads, but not to counteract the odiousness of his ego.

These two facets walk hand in hand as follows:

Speaking that which isn’t glorious is my contribution to the struggle.

It won’t be Jesse Jackson who gives full disclosure to the awful urgings that urge us all on. And it won’t be those porters in the airline terminal who won’t ever ride the plane. It won’t be them that do the dishes, but never have the pleasure of dining in even a three-star grub joint. Nuh-uh. It’s gotta be me, because I made it with the permission of no one who had authority, and my mama told me to speak my truth.

Ghetto Celebrity’s tag line is “searching for my father in me” and its premise is the quest to unearth his filial inheritance—or what passes for it when Dad is synonymous with absence and anger. Central to understanding his father, Delbert, is putting a fleshed-out finger on their shared “ghetto celebrity.”

Delbert’s was the result of being a gangster, heroin addict and pimp with later stints as a hybrid Muslim-Christian preacher. The Delbert-Donnell storyline grounds the author to something larger than himself, but often feels like a marketing artifice: Father-son reconciliation holds considerably more weight than the recollections of a lesser-known journalist. Alexander hops between his personal/professional life and family history. Like the story of how his grandfather migrated from West Virginia’s rural poverty to Cleveland’s ghetto poverty, to a better life in a town he chose as much for its access to good fishing as its affordability.

It’s an interesting tidbit rendered with love, but feels like the stuff of another book when juxtaposed with Alexander’s embarrassing confessional narratives. These include cheating on his fiancée, lusting after his nanny, getting fat smoking too much weed, etc.

All this raises one big question: Why is he telling us this?

However much his own, Alexander’s hiphop voice privileges flair over depth. The reason a rap single can become a hit with lyrics of no greater profundity than “sucka MCs beware” is that they’re accompanied with a beat and the peculiar appeal of a rapper’s voice—plus they rarely exceed four minutes. Alexander’s style obstructs the deeper questions he raises, like: How does a man become a middle-class professional dad with no male figure to model?

As he charts his course from small alternative weeklies in central California to greater gigs at the L.A. Weekly, Alexander catalogs every compliment he receives: From adoring white liberals, who fetishize his dreadlocked otherness, to hiphop frontmen, no stroke goes unmentioned. Alexander claims it takes a big ego to survive in the white-dominated alternative press, and maybe he’s right. But while internal arrogance sustains many a writer, it becomes insufferably onanistic in a memoir. At one point, an editor tells him he writes like a dream, and like a dream, needs editing. Alexander tells us that “no one who’s real would say some shit like that.” Hmmm . . . 150 pages into this book, the advice sounded real good to me. (That he wastes time with petty writer-editor payback is a testament to the self-serving nature of this effort.)

Ultimately, Alexander makes it big with a staff gig at ESPN—The Magazine where he writes profiles of troubled athletes, and his words are watered down by a coterie of Friends-watching jock editors. This results in further indignation, and a tightrope walk to a pink slip.

Perhaps the incoherence of Alexander’s story is indicative of the schizophrenia that African-American professionals endure in white-dominated creative fields. Or maybe the author is just an megalomaniacal jerk. One thing’s for sure: Ghetto Celebrity proves that African-American writers can be every bit as self-absorbed as their Caucasian brethren.


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