Thomas Chatterton Williams prefaces his debut by saying it was originally intended to be a work of cultural criticism. His memoir, Losing My Cool
, chronicles Williams’ eventual disillusionment with gangsta life under the tutelage of his brilliant, idiosyncratic father. But it’s clear even without the preface that Williams wants to make his story relevant to wider issues, and he has arguments that extend beyond his specific story.
The book opens on Williams’ father, a fascinating self-wrought black Southerner and former Sociologist who teaches SAT prep and lives in a white New Jersey suburb. Williams’ dad insists on being called “Pappy” or “Babe” by his children. As a child in the segregated South, Pappy taught himself to read by squirreling away books that were difficult to get. Pappy sees canonical philosophy and literature, chess, and college test preparation as the path toward a better life, and sees to it that Williams spends most afternoons practicing chess, playing with tachistoscopes, and studying word lists instead of hanging out or play video games with his friends.
But Williams’ desire to fit in is overwhelming. He’s fascinated by the Black Entertainment Television channel that’s playing at his barbershop. Soon he’s memorizing lifestyle tips from Nas and Jay-Z, trying to keep it real. He practices until he’s on the basketball team, gets the newest Air Jordans and the latest haircuts, and discovers the power of being a badass in front of the white kids at his school. Soon all he cares about is, as B.I.G. puts it, “money, hoes, and clothes.”
For about a third of the book, Williams is torn between the influences of his father and street culture. He reaches the edge when he catches his girlfriend playing him, and tries to act like a pimp, by slapping her around. It goes poorly; he doesn’t have it in him to be so cruel. Soon, he’s discovering education, philosophy, travel, and other world-expanding experiences. And he’s leaving hip-Hop behind. As the prolix title makes clear, he attributes this largely to his father’s ceaseless efforts.
In truth it never seems like Williams is in much danger: his unbroken home, Catholic-school education, and upbringing at the hands of one of the most interesting and engaged fathers in literary history make his early stabs at thug-life seem an adolescent phase. When Williams fails try-outs for an elite, tough, inner-city basketball team, the coach’s assessment seems accurate: “my boys are hungry, and Thomas is not.” His father has given him choices that, for a smart kid, outweigh the glory of keeping it real.
But his early and earnest fascination with hip-hop gives Williams insight into a mindset concerned with group unity above all else. His social critique — which comes to full force toward the end of the book — is intriguing. Williams is concerned by black culture’s lack of ironic detachment, noting that white teens listen to hip-hop without trying to smack their girlfriends or hustle for hot shoes. But his black friends hear their lives in the music, and treat anything “not black” with studied indifference. It’s a shame the book doesn’t develop and expand on these points. While his personal story is interesting a work of cultural criticism would have fleshed out Williams’ arguments, and required him to separate them from his interesting, if unusual biography.