The New Yorker Reader: Winter Fiction Issue, Part 2

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12/22/2008 4:00 PM |

“The Gangsters,” by Colson Whitehead.

Colson Whitehead writes like I wish I talked.

All cultures, indeed all cliques, have their own private languages — hang around any close-knit group of people and you start to pick up their catchphrases, quotations, inside jokes. Whitehead, in his narration, is confident, at ease with seemingly all varieties of high and low literary patois, from the workshopped similie to conversational flimflam. He integrates all these disparate slangs into his narration and deploys them supercoolly, like he’s at home.

And this isn’t just a matter of admiring his style: this story is about way race, class, geography, genetics, even a high school, tug young black men in different directions; so for this story, which weaves different threads of language into its stylistic DNA, language is part of a larger project of racial taxonomy. This goes for the characters, too: some pair up on rap lyrics; some talk intelligent; some cop the language of their white friends. Words are mantras, like “hot oil! hot oil!” or “Benji ‘n’ Reggie”, and listening to this story (it’s an earful to read), so specific and colored, is pleasure with a purpose.

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