------------------------------- "Black Planet" by David Shields Crown, $23 -------------------------------
In 1991, I shared a house with several students in Seattle's University District, and I remember returning home after Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, which I had watched at a friend's house (since none of my housemates were baseball fans). They were curious about my excitement, however, so I tried to explain the improbability of a catch Kirby Puckett made in dead center field, jumping high in the air to take away a sure home run.
"And the thing is," I said, "Kirby Puckett doesn't even look like a center fielder."
Jay, who knew something about baseball but apparently not about Kirby Puckett, said pointedly, "You mean he's not black."
"No," I began. "He's black. He's just kind of . . . short and squat. As opposed to tall and lean like most center fielders."
There was silence.
"Why are you smiling?" he asked.
"Because you were wrong," I said.
The real reason I was smiling was this: Jay was assuming a racial subtext on my part when there was none. The implied racial commentary he imagined in my head was really in his own.
David Shields, professor of English at the University of Washington, and author of two novels and the autobiographical nonfiction "Remote," is my old housemate writ large. In his new book, "Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season," Shields writes of the 1994-95 Seattle SuperSonics season in diary form. His hope is to reveal the hidden racial subtext in our dialogue about a sport where mostly white fans cheer on mostly black players.
Unfortunately, he sees racial subtext everywhere. At the ferry terminal to Bainbridge Island, a Doberman in the back of a Jeep starts barking at a black kid selling newspapers, which, to Shields, raises "the unasked but virtually audible question: whom had or hadn't the Doberman been trained to attack?" A caller to a radio show hosted by "T-man," a Seattle radio talk-show host, says she's from South Central L.A. and going to film school in Seattle, and we get the following exchange:
T-man says, "You want to be the next -"
Lavonne: "Don't say Spike Lee."
T-man: "I was going to say Steven Spielberg." No, he wasn't.
"No, he wasn't" is Shields' take on the exchange. It's David Shields reading T-man's mind.
Shields finds racial fault with coach George Karl's post-game commentary - not to mention movies like "Black Beauty" and "The Lion King." He pities Sonic announcer Kevin Calabro for having to interview players "in this false language of whiteness and sportsness . . ." Shields' most annoying habit is injecting italicized (and over-academic) interpretations of what everyone is "really" saying. It's as if the world is his text and he's deconstructing it. Magic Johnson shows up for post-season Laker games, and Shields describes him as "hollering, waving, grimacing, covering his face, making himself the object of attention that falls just short of minstrelsy." No one, it seems, is black enough for David Shields.
Except, of course, for Sonic guard Gary Payton, whom Shields unabashedly idolizes. "I'm not him," Shields writes of Payton, "I'm really not him, I wish I were him, I love him - the phantasm of him - to death." Making love to his wife, Shields imagines himself "as tall, thin, and muscular as Gary Payton." Too many times, in fact, Shields brings us back to his marriage bed. For what purpose? Do we really need to know what David Shields is fantasizing about when he's having sex? How does this illuminate the topic at hand? Does he imagine his foibles are our own?
Occasionally Shields raises the right questions. On Nov. 25, 1994, he writes about his inability to be as impolite to black people as he is to white people. He returns to this thought later, writing about how he'll say "thank you" if the bus driver is black but not white, how he'll hold the door open for black people but not white people. "Are black people conscious of how excruciatingly self-conscious white people have become in their every interaction with black people?" A good question, but Shields follows it with the unnecessary thought, "Is this self-consciousness an improvement?" Over what? Lynching? The rhetorical question is a good teaching device, but one wants more from an author.
Obviously the subject of "Black Planet" is an important one, but its execution is something of a joke. At the least, it should make some white readers feel good about themselves. They may be screwed up about race, but they're not as annoyingly screwed up as David Shields. -------------------------------
David Shields will discuss "Black Planet" tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the University Book Store in Seattle. Information: 206-634-3400. He will appear from 2:45 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. Nov. 14 on the Raymond Carver Stage at the Northwest Bookfest at the Washington State Trade and Convention Center. Information: 206-517-1474, or check the Bookfest's Web site at www.nwbookfest.org.