By Benilde Little
Simon & Schuster, $22
Reviewed by Erika N. Duckworth
Alice Andrews is the classic outsider looking in.
Exquisitely clad in designer clothes she can't afford, stuck in a job that sounds more important than it is, and raised in a place that doesn't exactly win points in the quiz game she calls Negro Geography, Alice skirts the fringes of Manhattan's young, black bourgeoisie set. The fact that she doesn't quite belong makes for crystal-clear and hilarious observations of delicate African-American class issues in Benilde Little's delightful first book, Good Hair.
A romance with a sharp sense of humor, Good Hair explores what happens when Newark-raised Alice embarks on a romance with Jack Russworm, a Howard-and-Harvard-educated surgeon whose privileged Bostonian bloodline epitomizes W.E.B. Dubois' idea of the "Talented Tenth," or the top portion of educated blacks he theorized should represent the rest of the race.
Alice, a grunt-level newspaper reporter, has been acutely aware of her working-class roots since her days as a scholarship student at Mount Holyoke, where her well-born girlfriends shopped retail and kept standing appointments at the beauty salon to maintain their bone-straight, socially acceptable hair.
"Once at Holyoke, my freshman suite mate, who was from D.C., asked me a few days after meeting me, after she'd given up trying to guess my social class, what my grandfather had done for a living," Little writes.
". . . I would later realize that I'd entered into a new world, where that kind of question was pertinent. Initially when my suite mate told me about the Black middle class, I thought I'd found my long-lost milieu. I had no idea then how far off that mark I was."
The daughter of a postal worker and a seamstress, Alice didn't exactly grow up wanting. Her mother's own dashed girlhood dreams were manifested in a steady diet of piano and dance lessons, a closet full of Lord & Taylor ensembles, and a bedroom straight off the Gidget set for her daughter. But in spite of that, a dark secret between Alice and her older brother Lucas has placed her on a dysfunctional, relentless quest to be perfect.
Nowhere is this more evident than in her dreadful relationship with Miles, an oily investment banker for whom she "literally put my best face forward," rising before he does to wash her face and apply custom-matched face powder.
When Alice meets Jack, she isn't sure whether to thank her lucky stars or run screaming in the other direction. He's a catch, no doubt, but he's practically royalty among an elite East coast crowd that makes Alice feel acutely insecure.
Her fears are seemingly realized when they attend a Washington society wedding together: "I looked around the courtyard, and there seemed to be a thousand light-skinned men with light brown wavy hair and blue or green eyes escorting women who looked like their sisters, drinking Cook's as if it were water and debating about whether Martha's Vineyard was better than Highland Beach."
Little wisely keeps her main characters from reverting to one-note stereotypes. Miles is a dog 90 percent of the time, but he's not completely without a heart. And for all of Jack's inherent goodness and too-good-to-be-true packaging, he's also a snob who throws Alice for a loop more than once with naive gaffes about "good hair" and such.
The author is particularly deft at sketching Alice's contradictions. In one airport sequence, she glances at her pricey Movado watch, clutches a Coach duffel bag and hustles to the nearest ATM to withdraw 20 of the last 50 dollars in her checking account.
The dialogue is brisk and believable, and Alice is fascinating to watch whether she's fretting about her hair puffing up in the humidity or cursing out Jack's ex-girlfriend. Her voice makes Good Hair a very good read.
Erika N. Duckworth is a Times staff writer.