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Ghetto Celebrity: Searching for my Father in Me
A margarita in his right hand, Donnell Alexander motions towards the computer with his left. He leans over and underscores the text on the screen with his finger. It's late, and we are in an office in a house in South Sacramento. Donnell is reading the Library Journal's review of his memoir, Ghetto Celebrity, aloud to someone named Sydney and a cadre of other strangers huddled around the computer.
Donnell's voice takes on a scholarly tone as he reads, "Donnell's rhythmic, inventive, liquid prose flows freely over, pools atop, and roils around these three intertwined stories like clear water over a California streambed. As the debut of a brilliant new author, this intergenerational story is highly recommended for public, academic, community center, and correctional institution libraries."
"That's the first time I've ever heard the word correctional institution used in any Library Journal book review. Ever." He thinks about it for a moment and then adds, "But it's great. This review got my book into the libraries and there isn't anything anyone can do about that."
Sydney nods sagely.
Noon. I meet Donnell at his sister's place in South Sacramento. Donnell had given me a brief warning over the phone when we scheduled the interview, "You should know, sometimes I meet people up here and they get a little weird about it. This place is in the projects."
Expecting the worse, I am pleasantly surprised when I arrive. The neighborhood isn't the most inviting, but it's not as ghetto as I had feared. The units look like imitation brownstones, they have faux brass light fixtures on the exterior and are located across the street from a well-maintained park.
A congregation is crowded below a canopy in the center of the park, involved in a vaguely religious-looking ceremony. A woman is speaking through a small PA system. A small audience listens intently.
Donnell meets me at the door to the apartment, introduces himself and shakes my hand. He introduces me to his nephew Robbie who is sitting on the sofa in the living room. The place is smaller than I would have guessed from the outside.
I tell Donnell the neighborhood isn't bad at all, given his phone warning.
"You're here on a good day." Donnell peaks out the window, surveying the crowd across the street. "Some lady down the street killed her two kids earlier this week. That's why they're here." He gestures toward the group in the park.
I ask what happened.
"She shook them," comments Robbie from his perch on the sofa.
"Postpartum depression." Donnell turns to me, "Look, before we get started, I wanted to ask you what you thought about my book."
Unprepared for the question, I try to change the subject by mentioning to Donnell that I've never been to Sacramento. It's a nice day and he agrees to show me some of the sights in town while we do the interview. We take off for Sacramento's Tower District, which seems odd to me since the only Tower District I've ever heard of is in my hometown of Fresno. I accuse Sacramento of stealing the name from Fresno.
"No." Donnell explains, "Your Tower District is named after Sacramento's Tower District." A few seconds later, doubt creeps into his voice. "Or maybe I just call it that because I lived in Fresno"
Donnell attended Fresno State, but never graduated. It's all in the book.
We settle in for lunch at a café adjacent to Sacramento's Tower Theater. Donnell was adamant about getting a table in the shade, and his persistence has paid off. We are seated next to a small fountain under a tree and I begin to take notes. Donnell hunches over my notebook; most of the conversation seems directed towards it, as if it were a tape recorder. Writers.
"It's impossible for me to discuss the book without talking about the business of the book," he announces.
He gives me a run down on a sweet book deal gone sour. He describes how he crossed paths with author Dave Eggers, how Eggers invited him to write the breakthrough essay "Are Black People Cooler Than White People?" (yes, they are) in the pages of Might magazine, how that developed into Eggers' interest in Ghetto Celebrity, how Eggers' outbid Random House for the rights to the book, and how the two developed a plan for world domination that was set to go into motion the summer of 2001.
"It was supposed to be me, Jonathan Letham, and Zadie Smith. We were all going to publish that summer and make a lot of money."
With the book given the green light and a well-hyped release set for June 2001, what could possibly go wrong for Ghetto Celebrity? There was one unforeseen factor nobody counted on: David Byrne.
"They bumped me back to September 2001 for David Byrne. He had put together a strange little bible. I still see them in stores sometimes. I understood. I would have bumped me for David Byrne."
With bills piling up and a second child on the way, Random House's earlier offer began to look inviting. Donnell nixed the deal with Eggers and aligned himself with a major publisher.
"It's been a privilege to work with my editor there. He helped me preserve a lot of the dirt in my book, the language, and the self-indulgence."
"Now I just need to sell a lot more books."
More troubling then the decay of the first book deal has been the fallout since the Ghetto Celebrity's publication. Many of Donnell's friendships and work relationships have been leveled. Publishing a frank memoir detailing office skirmishes, infidelities, and family secrets has a way of doing that.
"People read about this critically-acclaimed book and they think I've got it made. No one sees the internal conflicts. I get these reviews, but my friends are never going to read this book."
Donnell's mother, a fervent Jehovah's Witness, reportedly stopped reading Ghetto Celebrity at page 187.
"I used the word Jehovah-Fucking-God. She closed the book right there and said to herself 'That's enough of that book.'"
"She's mad at me but she's proud too."
"My father has read it. He never said anything to me about it, but I hear second hand that he thinks it's genius."
Donnell was estranged form his father for 20 years prior to the writing of the book, which details his attempts to rekindle the relationship.
While family and friends may ignore or refuse to comment on his work, Donnell has found comfort in the responses the book has generated in readers.
"I was in Oakland and this 15 year old girl with her mother came to a book signing I was doing at Barnes and Noble. Her mother told me she had never read a book on her own in her whole life."
At the signing, the girl confessed that she had read the book from cover to cover in one night.
After lunch at the café we decide to relocate to a bar in another part of town. I can't resist the idea of joining a self-proclaimed "party champ" for a drink or two. I'm absolutely lost on our way through downtown Sacramento. Donnell chides me for missing a turn on J Street several times.
"The streets go in alphabetical order."
At the Monkey Bar I enjoy a beer while Donnell sips a Jameson on the rocks. We watch the Montreal/Braves game on TBS and chat with the bartender a bit. I turn on a tape recorder and ask Donnell about his influences as a writer.
"Lester Bangs and Greg Tate. Hunter Thompson and all those non-fiction influences. I was always reading people like Phillip Roth. You ever read his novel Portnoy's Complaint? My book owes a lot to that novel. I think it's his fourth novel. Also Henry Miller and Redman's second album."
"Dave Eggers is another big influence. I can't deny the influence of his book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."
I probe into Donnell's motivation for writing such a personal, confessional book.
"I really look at it all as separate from my life. I mean, if you were to make a story of your life and you included everything in it, it would be really long. There are probably just as many interesting things that have gone on in my life that I didn't write about and so many story lines I could have carved out as a foundation for the story of my life and this just happened to be one that I came up with."
"There have been times when I realized how completely I had alienated myself from the world of publishing. There have been times, particularly this past winter, when I asked myself 'Why did I do this? Why did I do this? This is completely insane.'"
"It's all been passing."
The next and almost final stop on our tour of Sacramento turns out to be Bobby's Short Ribs, a Sports Bar and 'hood hang out in Oak Park. We walk into the dimly lit interior and a woman at the bar asks to see my bag. I ask her what she's looking for.
"Firearms," she says.
We sit and I order catfish. I ask Donnell if he wants anything.
"What do you mean? I'm going to eat your fries."
We eat French Fries and tackle the topic of the book one last time. Despite the mixed reaction of friends and family, it has generally received positive reviews. Ghetto Celebrity has quickly transformed Donnell Alexander into a bona fide ghetto celebrity. I ask him what he thinks about his newfound status.
"Honestly, it's not that cool."
"I'm living almost exactly the life I dreamed up when I was a teenager in college and it sucks. I should have dreamed higher. I should have aimed higher."
I notice that we're almost out of daylight. I still need to snap pictures of Donnell for the article. I usher him through the exit and into the failing light. Donnell inspects a series of woodcarvings that litter the parking lot.
"Do you recognize this?" he asks me. The carving depicts a boxing match, one boxer standing in triumph over the crumpled figure of boxer number two. A sure knockout.
I shake my head.
"I think its Ali and Foreman." He spots someone across the parking lot. "Is all this yours?" Donnell's arm makes a gesture that encompasses the collection of artwork. Sydney, a man in his mid-fifties, smiles, waves, and makes his way towards us through the maze of merchandise.
I begin taking pictures of Donnell.
After a brief flurry of conversation, Sydney asks why I am taking pictures of Donnell.
"He's interviewing me," he replies. "I wrote a book."
"I want to buy your book," said Sydney. "Let me just close up shop here. Drop off my truck, and then we'll go buy one. I want to see it. Just follow me to my house. Where can we buy it?"
"The Tower Records on Floren Road might have it."
Sydney seems impressed.
"It's a real live book."
Donnell Alexander will be reading from his book in Fresno at the Famous Festival on July 25th. Books can be purchased at the reading or at the Barnes & Noble across the street from River Park.