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  • Written by Paul Beatty
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  • Written by Paul Beatty
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A Novel

Written by Paul BeattyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Paul Beatty

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: November 07, 2012
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-82899-6
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

As fast-paced and hard-edged as the Harlem streets it portrays, Tuff shows off all of the amazing skill that Paul Beatty showed off in his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle.

Weighing in at 320 pounds, Winston “Tuffy” Foshay, is an East Harlem denizen who breaks jaws and shoots dogs and dreams of millions from his idea Cap’n Crunch: The Movie, starring Danny DeVito. His best friend is a disabled Muslim who wants to rob banks, his guiding light is an ex-hippie Asian woman who worked for Malcolm X, and his wife, Yolanda, he married from jail over the phone. Shrewdly comical as this dazzling novel is, it turns acerbically sublime when the frustrated Tuffy agrees to run for City Council. Smartly irreverent and edgily fierce, Tuff is a bona fide original.

Excerpt

Chapter One

Now on this, the last cool night of summer, Brooklyn was short three more niggers for Winston to hate. Although he addressed all black men as "God," Chilly Most, apparently less than divine, was unable to resurrect himself. Zoltan Yarborough, who was always running off at the mouth about his proud Brooklyn roots, "Brownsville, never ran, never will," had become the rigid embodiment of his slogan. He had one leg over the windowsill, and a bullet hole in him that, like everything his mother ever told him, went in one ear and out the other. Demetrius Broadnax from "Do-or-die Bed-Stuy" was shirtless on the floor with a column of bullet holes from sternum to belly button in his muddy brown torso. Winston gloated over Demetrius's body, looking into his ex-boss's glassy eyes, tempted to say "I quit" and ask for his severance pay. Instead he walked to the aquarium, pressed his nose against the glass, and wondered who was going to feed the goldfish.

Like most of the jobs Winston had taken since graduating high school, this one also ended prematurely, after a job interview only two weeks ago where the look on his face was his résumé and two sentences from his best friend, Fariq Cole, were his references. "This fat nigger ain't no joke. Yo -- known uptown for straight KO'ing niggers." There was no "So, Mr. Foshay, how do your personal career goals mesh with our corporate mission? Would you consider yourself to be a self-starter? What was the last book you read?" Demetrius simply handed Winston the inner-city union card, a small black .22 Raven automatic pistol, which Winston coolly, but immediately, handed back.

"What, your ass don't need a burner?"

"Naw."

"Look, fool, maybe you can body-slam niggers out on the street, but in this business, people don't walk in the door shaking their fists in your face."

Winston shrugged.

Demetrius studied him up and down and asked, "You ain't shook, are you? You don't seem the scary type."

"Never back down. Once a nigger back down, he stay down, know what I'm saying? Just don't like guns."

"Well, when some niggers do come in blasting, your big ass be in the way and shit, two, three motherfuckers can hide behind you. Be here tomorrow afternoon at four."

When Winston started work, he was "in the way and shit," but not in the manner Demetrius had hoped. Winston's job description was simple: four to ten, five days a week, answer the door, look mean and yell, "Pay this motherfucker, now!" at the balky customers. But the trip into Brooklyn made him edgy. His childhood traumas kicked in, undoing his cool. Instead of suavely sauntering around counting his money every five minutes, Winston fumbled about the drug den, stepping on people's toes, toppling everything he touched, and talking nonstop. He tried to lighten the somber felonious atmosphere by telling embarrassingly bad jokes. ("You hear the one about why Scots wear kilts?") After the flat punchlines ("Because sheep can hear a zipper open from one hundred feet away") there would be a barely audible metallic click, the sound of Demetrius switching the gun's safety to the off position.

Winston had trouble keeping track of the Brooklyn drug mores. Which colored caps went with what size plastic vials? Were portable televisions an acceptable form of payment? He was unable to distinguish one crew's secret whistle from another's. How often had Demetrius yelled at him, "You moron, don't flush the drugs! That's the mating call of the ruby-crowned kinglet!" Then Chilly Most and the others would join in with their snide castigations: "As opposed to our secret signal -- "

"The flight song of the skylark."

"A gentle woo-dukkadukka-woo."

"Good ol' Alauda arvenis, indigenous to Eurasia, but common in the Northwest Territories of Canada, if I'm not mistaken."

"You are not, you nigger ornithologist, you."

The last time Winston heard the cherished secret whistle, he answered the door and two niggers he'd never seen before, brandishing firearms, rushed past him and, before they could be properly announced, introduced themselves with a bullet in Chilly Most's newly shorn bald head. Winston did what his coworkers always said he'd do if he ever found himself face-to-face with a gun: he fainted "like a bitch."

Three minutes had passed since Winston regained consciousness, and he couldn't leave the apartment. It was as if he were spacewalking, tethered to some mother ship treading Brooklyn ether. He would clamber for the door and a muffled sound in the hallway or a distant siren would drive him back into the living room. He began to mumble: "This like that flick, the bugged-out Spanish one where the rich people couldn't leave the house. Luis Bustelo or some shit. What is it . . . surrealism? Well, I got the surrealisms."

A creak in the floor behind him stopped Winston's babbling. He quickly about-faced, balling his shaky hands into fists.

"Who dat?"

"Who dat?" came the response. Winston relaxed. He smiled, "Nigger," unclenched his fists, and plopped down on the sofa.
Fariq Cole hobbled into the living room, his crutches splayed out to the side, propelling him forward. Fariq's friends called him Smush because his nose, lips, and forehead shared the same Euclidean plane, giving him a profile that had all the contours of a cardboard box. Each herky-jerky step undulated Fariq's body toward Winston like a Slinky, alternately coiling and uncoiling. A solid-gold dollar-sign pendant and a diamond-inlaid ankh whipped about his neck in an elliptical orbit like a jewel-encrusted satellite. Fariq stopped next to the doorjamb, tilted his head to the side, and cut his friend a dubious look.

"Who was you talking to?"

"Nobody. Just trying to figure out why I was still here."

"You still here because you couldn't leave without me, your so-called boy."

"You is. But it wasn't you -- I barely got to work ten minutes ago, I didn't even know you was here. Naw, it's something else."

Fariq was the coolest of the many cool handicapped East Harlemites. His appearance was inner-city dapper, functional and physically fit assimilationist. Despite the soft spot in his head where his skull had never fused, it'd been a long time since he'd worn a cyclist's helmet. The bill of his fiberglass-reinforced Yankee baseball cap hung over his left eye, shadowing the surgical scars. The baggy corduroys covered up his leg braces. His clubfeet were squeezed into a pair of expensive sneakers, though he'd never run a step in his life. Fariq ran his tongue over his precious-metal-filled mouth, the front four incisors, top and bottom, capped in a gold-and-silver checkerboard pattern. Etched on his two front teeth were small black king and queen chess pieces, christened "Fariq" and "Nadine" in microscopic handwriting.

"Now look at these no-money motherfuckers -- who going to take care of their families?" Fariq said, a rubber-tipped crutch sweeping across the carnage. "That's why a prudent motherfucker like me has an IRA account, some short-term T-bills, a grip invested in long-term corporate bonds and high-risk foreign stock. Shit, the twenty-first-century nigger gots to have a diversified portfolio -- never know when you gon' have a rainy day. And look like it was thunderin' and lightnin' in this motherfucker."

Winston and Fariq had known each other since the subway cost seventy-five cents. Fariq was an enterprising shyster who dragged Winston, the muscle, along on all his moneymaking schemes, the first of which was a fifth-grade dognapping operation so immense it required the use of every rooftop pigeon coop on 109th Street between Park and Second Avenues for kennel space.

The idea was to stalk the parks and streets of Manhattan luring unleashed dogs into the bushes with whistles, kindhearted "Here, boy"s, and hickory-smoked slabs of beef sausage. The poor, whining creatures left tethered to parking meters while their owners kibitzed over cappuccino were liberated with garden shears. Then the boys waited for the rewards to be posted and returned to collect the bounty. "Yeah, lady, the dog was wandering the streets of Harlem. Some crackheads had put an apple in his mouth and was fixing to skewer him with a barbecue spit up the ass, talking about 'pooch du jour,' when we rescued him and brought him here. Would fifty dollars be enough? Well, frankly, no."

Winston ran up to Fariq and with one flabby arm buried his friend's head in a boys-will-be-boys headlock. Fariq's eyes bulged with pain, "Ow, Tuff! You know better than to do that shit."

"Sorry, man -- just trying show you some love, glad you alive and shit. Was it the spina bifida or the rickets flaring up? I can never remember which one you got."

"Both, nigger, both. But I'm just sore from hiding in the tub. Heard that first shot, I belted my pants, fell into the tub, and pulled the shower curtain closed. Thank goodness those niggers didn't have to piss."

"We need to be out, son. Rollers going to show up any minute now."

"The po-po ain't here by now, they ain't coming."

"Well, them shoot-'em-up cowboys might be back to get me -- don't want to leave no witnesses behind."

"Man, after they sparked up these clowns, I could hear them laughing at your big ass passed out on the floor. They ain't worried about no swooning motherfucker coming back to get them. I thought I was going to come out and have to splash water on your face. Slap you around a bit, James Cagney style."

"I didn't faint. I was playing possum and shit."

"Yeah, right. Let's get ghost."

"Who you, the leader now?"

"Fuck you, Tonto. Hi-yo, Silver, and away, nigger."

"Robin."

"Batgirl."

"Al Cowlings."

"Oh, a low blow."
They left the apartment with a bravado that belied their fear. The halls normally filled with kids and the sounds of blaring televisions were silent. The refugees were holed up in their urban-renewal hovels waiting for the occupying forces to leave. A little girl, wearing a belled choker, peeked out of a doorway, stuck out her tongue at the two boys, and was snatched by her ponytails back inside so quickly the bell didn't even tinkle. The building's elevators never worked, so Winston carried Fariq in his arms down twelve flights of stairs, gently setting him down next to a battered block of mailboxes. Readjusting the collar on Fariq's shirt, Winston stepped back and snapped his fingers. "Wait here. Now I know why I couldn't leave -- I forgot something. Be right back." Before Fariq could say, "Naw, nigger, don't leave me," Winston was springing up the flight of stairs two and three steps at time.

Fariq was nervous about being left alone, but pleased to see Winston's famed agility return. Nigger was fumbling around the spot telling jokes like he Henny Youngman and shit. Talking to himself. I know the boy don't like Brooklyn, but goddamn, fainting? Many times fools pulled guns on him? Tuffy be like, "Shoot me, motherfucker!" I guess the good thing about fainting in the face of death is that it keeps you from begging. That's the old Tuffy, running them stairs like the big Kodiak bear of a brother he is. Fariq grinned, recalling how during the summer-long games of tag, only the fastest kids on East 109th Street could outrun Tuffy, avoiding his painful, heavy-handed tag back. Fariq's toes began to tingle. He could feel the vibrations -- the vibrations from the scraping of his corrective shoes as he dragged them over the craggy pavement, trying to run. Fariq was It for an entire summer: lumbering after screaming hordes of children on his crutches, feeling like the neighborhood leper, never catching anyone. On the first day of fifth grade Fariq had to resort to ringing Sharif Middleton's doorbell at six-thirty in the morning, tagging the unsuspecting mope with a crutch in the gut as he answered the door wiping the sleep from his eyes. Tuffy, my nukka, where you at?

Winston entered the apartment, stepped over a body, and grabbed a brown lunch bag from the rear of the refrigerator. He reached inside the sack and gobbled down a cold, soggy ham-and-cheese sandwich. His mouth still full, Winston flipped the plastic sandwich bag inside-out, walked over to the aquarium, sprinkled the crumbs into the water, and when the fish rose to the surface, deftly scooped it out, barely wetting his hands.

Winston was knotting the plastic bag and on his way out when he heard a tinny ringing sound. The girl from the hallway was cowering in the corner of the living room, holding three puffy wallets, some jewelry, and Demetrius's .22 Raven pistol in the folds of her dress. Winston bristled. "You little vulture, these fools ain't cold and you rifling pockets."

"Finders keepers, losers weepers."

"Christ, everybody and they mama got a hustle. Give me the gun."

The girl scrunched her face and backed even further into the corner, sticking her tongue out again. Winston walked up to the girl and took the gun from her hands, then lifted her to her feet by the elbow.

"Go home."

She skipped down the hall to her apartment, the door opened, and a thin hand reeled her inside by the hem of her dress. The door slammed shut. Winston waited for the click of the lock, stuffed the gun into his pants pocket, gently placed the fish into the lunch bag, and hustled back down the stairs.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Paul Beatty, author of TUFF

Q: You have published two volumes of poetry. What made you decide to write novels?

A: My poems were getting longer and longer. The idea for my first novel had been ricocheting in my head for six years. In '95 I received grant from the Jasper Johns foundation that allowed me the luxury of doing nothing for six months but gather up the courage to write prose. Many prose writers have started with poetry. I'm no different. Just fortunate to have some poetic success at a time when poetry received more academic, public, and media attention than usual. For me poetry is the skeleton framework of my prose, through the narrative writing process is not much different. Most of my prose is indirectly about the writing process, and consequences of writing poetry.

Q: How would you describe your book, TUFF?

A: I would describe TUFF as a funny, biting, vulgar and honest look at the gated barriersdivisions in American culture. Sometimes the gates are open, sometimes they are locked, but the 'other' is always just on the other side of the fence. TUFF is about a young man, a misfit with no skills other his fists and quick wit unwittingly empowering himself through the only vocation that requires no certificates, prior history of employment, references--local politics. It also shows how the media and political activists use big bad black men like Tuffy to achieve their own ends, be the intentions bad or good. Though modeled on real people, most of the characters in the book are misfits -- a black rabbi, cripple, white inner-city kid, Japanese-American communist black activist, criminals, bullied police officers, runaway mother, a passé ex-black panther father, massive Japanese sumo wrestlers. But these misfits, excluding Tuffy aren't trying to fit in. It's only Tuffy looking for a place in a mainstream society that tries to claims want to want him but really has no place for him.

Q: How would you describe the character Tuffy?

A: He is a brute, father, cineaste, and frustrated astronomer. Like a masterless samurai he has a loyal streak, but other than his family and friends he has no institutions or belief systems to be loyal to.

Q: Tuffy who you describe above, decides to run for city council in Harlem. Is this your answer to black rhetoric politics?

A: Tuffy's "campaign" is no answer. It's a sardonic consequence. If all politics is "rhetoric politics", then African-American politics is especially so.

Q: You grew up outside Los Angeles. Why did you chose to set your novel in East Harlem?

A: Growing up in Los Angeles has no bearing on anything I write unless it's about Los Angeles. And even then Los Angeles is simply a setting unique only for its climate, language, and my having gone to high school there. My creative process is not tied to it. I lived in a studio East Harlem apartment for about five years. It was in this neighborhood that I formed my impressions of New York City, worked, and learned my craft.

Q: When your first novel, WHITE BOY SHUFFLE was published, critics said you were the literary parodic counterpart to hip-hop and stand-up comedy as practiced by Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy. What do you think about this comparison?

A: All literature is framed by the societal zeitgeist in which it is written. In some ways saying my work is the "literary parodic counterpart to hip-hop and stand-up comedy" is an insult The general knee-jerk critical reaction that all African-American art is linked to pop culture in ways that white American art rarely is. I think that the races and artistic forms (pop or not) are all linked, especially in this, the information age. So I don't deny the links to music and comedy, but decry the short-sightedness that these are the only, or most important links, they are not. Richard Pryor is a genius. Who I admire for his vulnerability, fearlessness and insight. Eddie Murphy is not funny. Hip-hop is a genre and like any genre is sometimes good, sometimes bad. It does not influence in anyway how or why I write. If it is part of an character's world or an appropriate metaphor, then it's there. For instance Tuffy listens to rap, occasionally recites rap lyrics but claims he doesn't like it, and hates being mistaken for anyone of the slew of overweight rap artists. Spencer Throckmorton the black rabbi is fan of easy listening music. And his music, Harry Chapin, Bread America, Simon and Garfunkel sets the tone for the book at least as much as hip hop, if not more so. Of course most people don't care because that's not "black."

Q: It's also been said that you use the Beat influence to amplify the voice of the "hip-hop" generation. What's that all about?

A: I have no idea. I hate most Beat literature other than Ray Bremser, a few poems and two short films, but I admire it's aesthetics and earnestness. I guess maybe some folks see similarities between the Beat generation and the hip hop generation. But as Tuffy says, "What is the hip-hop generation? How come there's no opera generation?"

Q: Who are some of your literary and musical influences?

A: Volaire, Vonnegut, Pryor, Eiji Yoshikawa, Kawabata, Issa, Basho. (literary influences)

Though Vonnegut and Pryor are the only ones who've influenced how I think about writing in terms of what to say, not so much how to say it. The character of TUFF is directly influenced by Yoshikawa's portrayal of Miyamoto Musashi, a famous samurai in feudal Japan.

James Taylor, Lonnie Johnson, Coltrane, Biggie Smalls. (musical influences)

Q: What is next on the horizon for you?

A: I wish I knew, then I could go in the opposite direction.

Praise

Praise

“[M]asterfully conceived and highly entertaining.... Richly textured and unforgettable.”–The Boston Globe

“[A]n extravagant, satirical cri de coeur from the inner city.... Tuff is a funny book, and Mr. Beatty’s blunt, impious, streetwise eloquence has a...transfixing power.”–The New York Times

“When Beatty writes, it’s not hard to pay attention.”–USA Today

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