Three years ago, Adam Mansbach shook up the world of fiction with his debut novel Angry Black White Boy, or The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay, a satire about "race, whiteness and hip hop." Dubbed "a remarkably successful remix of the traditional race novel," the book was hailed as the 21st century's answer toNative Son. Not bad for a guy who at the time was barely 30.
With his latest novel, The End of the Jews, which hit shelves last week, the author once again probes the issues of race, this time telling a tale through the perspectives of multiple generations. He'll be reading from his latest tomorrow night at McNally Robinson, between He'Brew beer toasts, and Jonathan Powell Trio tunes. In anticipation of the event, he took time out from his book tour to answer our questions about Jewish identity, the affect a black president could have on this country, and KRS-One.
Congratulations on the new book! How's the tour going? Thanks. So far, so good, but I’m only two days in. It’s going to be a very compressed, intense tour, seven cities in eleven days, because my girlfriend is very pregnant and I’ve gotta get back in time for our kid to be born. In the past, I’ve been a real 20-city, road warrior kind of guy, but I gotta tone it down this time.
The title, The End of the Jews, has a strong resonance. So blunt, yet harrowing, almost prophetic sounding. You explained on a recent kpfa.org radio show that many years ago your grandfather said to you "this is the end of the Jews" at a bar mitzvah, thus giving the book its title. How much does your grandfather inspire Tristan, the grandfather figure in the novel, who grew up in the Bronx during the Depression? My grandfather is a brilliant and complicated guy, like Tristan, but the character is distinct from the man. They share some geography, and certainly I did a lot of research on the specifics of time and place by talking to my grandfather, but their lives diverge. My grandfather’s relationship to his work – he was a law professor and a judge – is similarly intense. But there is as much of me in the character – in every character, really; a writer has to invest himself fully in everybody he invents, in order to bring these people to life – as there is of him. And the way I take inspiration or material from life is always complicated; there’s a whole process of recasting, reimagining, extrapolating, speculating, changing motivations and facts and flipping things around in service of what it is you’re going after.
So, for instance, there’s a relationship in the book between Tristan and an older writer named Peter Pendergast, a Boston Brahmin type who becomes very invested in Tristan’s career and periodically does things like get him a job to keep him out of the war, help him win awards, etc. The relationship is very complicated, because Tristan doesn’t respect Pendergast as a writer, and also has mixed feelings about being made part of somebody else’s project to integrate country clubs, bring Jews into the mainstream, and so on. It pits his ambition against his conscience. In real life, my grandfather had a mentor who was instrumental in a lot of the big events in his life, and who was similarly committed to the social and academic integration of Jews. But my grandfather only spoke of this man with the deepest respect and admiration. All the tension and animosity in the book comes from me imagining a kind of alternate version of the relationship, and then building a character and a series of events to flesh that out.
Did you ever go on a graffiti bombing escapade with your grandfather? Nope. That part is entirely made up.
In that radio interview, you went on to explain that the larger meaning of the title had to do with the end of a sustainable community, or a specific identity, meaning a loss of certain cultural ties that make something what it is. Are you saddened by this idea? Or do you think some level of cultural separation is necessary in order to achieve universal racial acceptance? Well, I don’t really think of it in those terms. I think that being Jewish is in some ways unique because there’s this conflation of race, culture and religion. Because Jews were kicked out of every country in Europe at one time or another, and plenty of other places as well, there isn’t an ability to indentify with a national heritage – you’ll never hear a Jew say “I’m German” or “I’m Polish,” without saying something about being Jewish as well, and for good reason. But this also means that Jewish becomes an ethnic identity snarled up in a religious one, so you have the paradox of people identifying as Jewish but not as religious, like me. This is not the case with, for example, Protestants. And the effect is that there are a lot of margins to the Jewish community, or communities, a lot of outskirts, a lot of places where people feel conflicted, ambiguous, excluded, unwilling to come closer, and so on. And the margins, in any community, is where creative thought usually comes from – from people who stand a little apart, who don’t feel comfortable or don’t or can’t feel part of the mainstream. From these margins, a critical distance to the center allows for a certain perspective. And in a lot of ways, The End of the Jews is about people on those margins, for whom a traditional, pat identity doesn’t work, and a new one has to be invented, which is very difficult work, the work of the artist.
Another intriguing character in the book, Tristan's grandson, Tris is a DJ, who often plays the Boogie Down Productions track "Why Is That?" at bar mitzvahs. What role has this tune played in your own life? KRS-One was my idol when that song came out, in '89. He was the most forceful, articulate, brilliant, far-ranging thinker in hip hop. Tris plays the song because it cites all this scripture to prove that Moses was black; he plays it as a kind of unreceived challenge to the other people at these bar mitzvahs. That song, and the whole album, represented to me the intellectual direction I wanted to see hip hop take – probing, confrontational, political. I thought it was brilliant; I had no problem with the notion that Moses was black, or Jesus was black. This seemed historically plausible, and in any case, I cared much more about Afrocentricity, which was big in hip hop back then, and about challenging the racist hegemony of the school system, law enforcement, etc, than I did about preserving some kind of Jewish identity. I had a much stronger hip hop identity than I did a Jewish one.
In the novel, Tris has a Czech girlfriend named Nina who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain with an American jazz band. In this case jazz music is literally an enabler. It might be presumptive to say that you're using jazz as a larger metaphor here, but are you? Not necessarily. This is a piece of the book that does have some grounding in fact. I do know of people who managed to get out like this. Certainly, jazz acts as a liberating force here – although of course, Nina finds something very different from liberation when she actually gets on the road with these guys - as it does in different contexts for Tristan and Tris, but I’m trying to be playful and complicated with what that means, how real that is, as part of the book’s overall attempt to grapple with the relationships between black and Jewish artists throughout the 20th century: the ways black and Jewish otherness have served as foils for each other, the fine lines between inspiration and theft, admiration and exoticization, and so on.
There are three writers in the book, Tristan, his wife Amalia, and Tris. You describe their creative process considerably. Can you talk a little bit about your own process? I try to write in the mornings, as soon as I’m up and caffeinated, and to stay in the chair as long as I can be productive. Writing novels is largely about endurance, and patience. I take a lot of breaks, hit walls and go do something else while I think things through. But I do it every day, and I try to treat it as a job, something that is not dictated by whimsy or muses. I try to lock myself into a groove and stay there, because coming back after a layoff is awful.
The author, William Upski Wimsatt called you the "white Richard Wright" in a review of your first novel Angry Black White Boy. How do you react to that? Very flattering. He felt like ABWB was this generation’s Native Son, a book that dealt with race in a unique and important way, and that’s the best praise I could hope to receive.
How do you define hip hop, and would you consider The End of the Jews hip hop? I wrote a long piece about the notion of hip hop literature for my man Jeff Chang's anthology, Total Chaos, in which I try to answer this question by talking at length about the artistic pillars of hip hop and how they might translate onto the pages of a novel. In some ways, yes, I would consider this a hip hop novel, among many other things, because my notions of flow and rupture, of mixology and pacing and intellectual democracy, come from hip hop. It's not hip hop because people are writing graffiti or spraypainting in it – to me, that’s not a good enough reason. It’s got to be on the level of aesthetics; it’s got to separate form from content. Like with jazz writers and painters – Bearden, Ellison, Hughes, Baraka. We don’t call them jazz because they painted or wrote about the music, but becaue something in their conception reflected the sensibilities of the culture in a recognizable way, added a visual or literary element to the canon.
You've spent a lot of time in other countries. Do you think you would have been able to write the books that you've written without experiencing this distance from American culture? Sure. I think differently when I travel. It provides the kind of perspective I was talking about earlier in terms of community and margins. I’ve traveled a lot as a roadie for the great jazz drummer Elvin Jones, and that perspective in particular has been very valuable for me as a writer.
If Barak Obama becomes our first black president, what affect do you think this will have on issues of race in America? That’s such a complex thing to answer. I think he’s honestly committed to fostering dialogue about race, in a way no other president has – and unlike Clinton, who tried, I think he has the will to see it through. There will be an ugly, ugly backlash if he’s elected; racism will be harder to demonstrate to people – and people are unwilling enough to see it already - because a black man will be sitting in the white house. Ultimately, the only thing that really matters, more than his attitude or his willingness to create dialogue, will be his policies. Will he end the epic incarceration of black men? Will he repeal the Rockefeller drug laws? Will money be put into revitalizing crumbling urban and rural schools? These are the things that ultimately determine the effect he can have.
Are you optimistic that a great change will occur after November 4? I am. I have to be.
Angry Black White Boy is being made into a film. Do you know when it will come out? It is, as they say, "in development." Meaning no time soon.
Are you at all involved in the production? I’ve been involved in different ways at different stages. I’ve become friends with all the different people who’ve expressed interest in getting this thing made, tried to help when I could. But the bottom line is that it’s hard to find funding for a satire about race and whiteness in America. Really hard.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary authors? Denis Johnson, Tobias Wolff and Percival Everett are a few names that come quickly to mind.
What music have you been listening to during this tour? I’m booked so tight that I haven’t been listening to anything. But in terms of new music, and specifically hip hop, there’s not too much I’m really feeling. The Pharoah Monch album is amazing, though. I've been listening to that since it came out.
Can you share one of your favorite lines from The End of the Jews? At one point, Tristan runs his hand through his head of white hair and says something like “I really need a haircut. It’s either that or buy a violin.” I kind of like that.