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Vain Glory

His mama told him to speak the truth



Presumably Donnell Alexander wrote a midlife memoir because he wanted 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 also wants you to know that he's had quite a lot of sex with fawning Caucasian honeys, has run the gamut of trendy hallucinogens, and is perhaps the most talented hip-hop journalist of his generation. In short, Donnell Alexander is a lot cooler than you are.

The author grew up in a small-town ghetto, Sandusky, Ohio, where he was raised by his mother. Having never quite materialized as a student or track star, he heads to California to claw his way through community college. Despite never graduating, he finds his voice at student newspapers writing what he describes as "buttwipe journalism."

Ghetto Celebrity is one of the most infuriatingly readable memoirs of recent years. It's out in hardcover, but would be better suited for Nerf: I longed to scrunch it into a ball and punt it across my living room, but with every intention of returning to it. Ice Cube kicked off his solo album by pronouncing that he was the "nigga ya love to hate." Ditto that for Alexander, whose tiresome (and obscure) hip-hop voice includes prose delicious enough to merit rereads, but doesn't 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 the premise is the author's quest to unearth his filial inheritance -- or what passes for it when Dad is synonymous with absence, his legacy passed down through local legends. Central to understanding his father, Delbert, is putting a fleshed-out finger on their shared "ghetto celebrity."

Delbert's ghetto celebrity 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 an artifice: Father-son reconciliation holds considerably more weight than the recollections of a lesser-known journalist

Alexander hops back and forth between his personal-professional life and family history. There's the story of how his grandfather migrated from West Virginia's rural poverty to Cleveland's ghetto poverty, to a somewhat 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 no shortage of love, but it feels like it belongs in another book when juxtaposed with Alexander's confessional narratives. These include cheating on his fiancee in San Francisco, lusting after his Trinidadian nanny in New York, getting fat smoking too much weed, etc.

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

Alexander waxes in a hip-hop voice that however unique, privileges flair for depth. The reason any given rap single can become a hit with lyrics of no greater profundity than "sucka MCs beware" is that they're accompanied with beats, scratching and the symbiosis of a rapper's voice -- plus they rarely exceed four minutes in length. 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 San Francisco Bay Guardian and the LA Weekly, Alexander is sure to catalog every compliment he receives -- from adoring white liberals who fetishize his dread-locked otherness to hip-hop frontmen, no ego 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 an 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 informs 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.

Ultimately, Alexander makes it big with a staff gig at ESPN The Magazine where he writes profiles of troubled athletes. He dislocates his family (the woman with whom he once cheated, a graphic designer, is now his wife and mother to his child) to New York, where his words are watered down by a coterie of Friends-watching jock editors. This produces more indignation, and a tightrope walk to a pink slip.

Perhaps the incoherence of Alexander's story is indicative of the schizophrenia of self that African-American professionals endure in white-dominated creative fields. Or maybe the author is just an egomaniacal prick. It's this tension along with snippets of remarkable prose that make this book readable. 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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