And, so we're clear, just because the volume on Crouch's customary rhetorical dynamics may be turned down a little in Artificial White Man, that doesn't mean the man always remembers to keep the restraints at hand:
Writers may well have gone to integrated colleges with all manner of people, some of whom have remained their friends over the years. They may live in neighborhoods populated with various kinds of Americans.... These writers may make it their business to associate themselves with at least one version of those organizations bent on chopping down more trees in the poison forest of ethnic, sexual, religious and class bigotry. Some of their best friends might be--you name it. But when they sit down to write about this big country, they punk out....
That is now the norm: punking out. Hiding under the bed. Walking beneath a flag of white underwear stained fully yellow by liquefied fear....
At which point, the reader will be tempted to shout, "Awww, man! Why'd you have to go there? You were doing fine up till then." This isn't the last time the stained-yellow underwear comes up, and it's at such points and others strewn throughout the book that one's threshold for Crouch's freewheeling attack gets pressed to the breaking point. Still, when Crouch is focused on the task at hand, especially in the title essay's slow-hand evisceration of David Shields's Black Planet, it is fearsomely thrilling to behold.
To Crouch, Shields's highly subjective account of the 1994-95 Seattle SuperSonics season constitutes one of the bad things that happen when good writers grasp for authenticity or, as Crouch sees it, the notion of "being--or not being--what [Shields] calls 'cool.'" Reading Shields confess his fascination, from his relatively secure, petit-bourgeois white standpoint, with flamboyant, often belligerent and wealthy black basketball superstars like Gary Payton, Crouch finds that Shields is avoiding, far more than confronting, his own bullshit.
As far as Shields is concerned, Crouch writes:
The black American's greatest refinements are expressed not in medicine, science, education, the arts and technology, but in shorts, tennis shoes and a sleeveless jersey, "talking trash" on the polished hardwood of a basketball court, sort of a flattened bush where primordial updates are available to the eye. Shields attacks this tendency in himself and others to reduce black men to athletic flesh held in place by the meat hooks of Caucasian projections. But, like a blacksmith addicted to making the same form over and over, he continues to forge new meat hooks and hoist these men into place.
You probably have to read both the "Artificial White Man" essay and "Blues in More Than One Color: The Films of Quentin Tarantino" more than once to figure out why Crouch thinks Tarantino is a lot "cooler"--more authentic?--in his engagement with the black psyche than Shields. The Tarantino essay does cover a lot of real estate. (It's a raw, rambling and altogether remarkable virtuoso solo that started out, Crouch writes, as a letter responding to Daniel Mendelsohn's dismissal of Tarantino's Kill Bill in The New York Review of Books.) It might help to skip ahead to the part of the essay that deals with Tarantino's overlooked Jackie Brown (1997), which gets its most thorough and incisive appreciation in these pages. Crouch correctly sees that what had been hyped and is still seen in some quarters as Tarantino's homage to the "blaxploitation" movies of the 1970s was in fact a sly, humane subversion of those knockabout thrillers. Crouch's swaggering belligerence may sell tickets to the chattering classes. But critics should always be judged finally on what and how they love. And in the Tarantino essay and his appreciations elsewhere in the book of Jorge Luis Borges, Danzy Senna, Saul Bellow and ZZ Packer, his enthusiastic passion feels so genuine that it further diminishes the things and trends he despises.
Then again, Crouch might not always be as intractable as he seems toward his targets. After all, he's considerably softened the acerbic disdain he expressed toward Spike Lee in Hanging Judge. (In Always in Pursuit, he said nice things about Lee's Bamboozled and He Got Game.) As for Toni Morrison, another culture hero roughed up in Hanging Judge, Crouch's misgivings toward her work are compressed in Artificial White Man into the following inquiry:
For some time, I have wondered why Toni Morrison makes so little of the black female expression that she knows in person. Oprah Winfrey and Leontyne Price are supposedly two of her best friends. Each woman soared from humble beginnings to conquer areas of life that have been touched by few people of any color in America. What they have lived and know and must talk about goes far, far beyond the fictionalized gossip that forms the basis for a lot of fiction. But Morrison prefers to keep her characters down on the farm, and we are still waiting for the hot mama who has high thoughts.
As long as the brother is being prescriptive, let's flip a suggestion of our own back to him. Why doesn't he get out of his study more often and do some of the on-the-scene reporting that gave Hanging Judge its brighter moments? Imagine what would happen if the probing subjectivity that informed such Hanging Judge essays as "Atlanta Reconstructed," his sensitive reading of the city's mood in the midst of its 1979-1981 child murders, and "Body and Soul," his incomparable meditation on classics and culture during the 1983 Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy, were brought to the Michael Jackson trial in Los Angeles. Crouch has been writing about Jackson's physical and cultural transformations since the 1980s. There's yet another essay about the King of Pop in Artificial White Man; this one focuses on his noisy financial set-to with the Sony Music executives Jackson accused of racism. If this were a more heroic era in journalism (say, the 1960s), a magazine editor would have put Crouch on a plane for the left coast weeks ago and let his sensibility roam wild and free amid the day-to-day absurdities within and beyond the courtroom where Jackson's trial takes its jagged course. If Mailer could bear witness to a moon shot, why can't Crouch do something similar with a moonwalker's most perilous high-wire act?