In a powerful yet theoretically overwrought memoir, Awkward (English/Univ. of Penn.) depicts the variegated influences that led him to become, in his terms, a —black male feminist.— Awkward grew up in Southwark, a rundown Philadelphia public housing project, in the early 1970s. He excelled in school but outside ran a cruel gauntlet—his alcoholic mother, the casual viciousness of ghetto-kid culture, the potentially lethal gangs—that left him bewildered over the notions of maleness projected by an environment in which sexuality was degraded and women were brutalized. Escaping on scholarship to private school, he was still confounded in this less dangerous environment by the strictures of the black students— clique, which was intensely leery of the —whiteboy— majority, and he faced similar experiences at Brandeis and throughout his teaching career at Michigan and Penn. Many moments in Awkward's narrative—his musings on the death of his abusive father and on his mother's descent into and recovery from alcoholism, for example—are imaginatively unsettling or intellectually provocative. But the author constantly interrupts his story to refashion it into a parable of African-American intellectual difference. Although some will enjoy Awkward's flights into literary theory, he seems distracted by his own ideas and unable to resist dilating on every possible theory of blackness and gender. His recollections of his stricken childhood are thought-provoking and often scorching, but the important realities he recalls are diffused by his rhetorical fussing over the vagaries of identity politics. At once, then, a sobering memoir of one particular African-American child's triumph over brutality and long odds, and an extended consideration of cultural issues that are not only more general but far more familiar.
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