Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus – A Review

Beneath the Underdog
Charles Mingus

This book has been called both a Beat novel and a testament of the Civil Rights struggle. What I’ve never heard it called is an autobiography of  a musician. If you’ve never heard anything about the book, you would be right in thinking you’ll read about his approach to music, how he came to be the musician he was. He played with all the greats, created some great recordings, and yet when you read the book its almost a second thought. Except for a refreshingly detailed account of working with Earl Hines, there is very little about music.

Then what is it? Calling it a Beat novel is probably most apropos. There is certainly an almost juvenile consequence free braggadocio that you find in some of the worst of Kerouac. With Mingus, like Kerouac, his treatment and depiction of women is horrible. There is a certain comedy when he talks about how virile he is and how long he could have sex. Who knows if any of it is true. It’s written as a form of porn. Where it breaks down is his life as a pimp and his joy in turning rich white women in to prostitutes. Certainly, there is something transgressive in an African American jazz musician not only having relationships with white women—this was still the era of miscegenation laws—but becoming their pimp, turning the racial-sexual politics on its head. But the book isn’t about transgression per-say. It’s too glib. It’s about the fun of prostitution. It’s about sexual contest. It’s about the dream life of Mingus. And ultimately, it’s about using women, treating them sort of thing to play with and dispose of later.And when you turn your supposed life long love, an African American woman, into a prostitute I’m not exactly sure what you are.

Again, this is not a reflective book, despite Mingus’ occasional reflective abilities, and it is a shame because it starts out that way, describing his childhood in Watts, the racism he encountered, the lives of Japanese, Mexican, and African American residents of his mixed neighborhood. Here is also where he talks about music—he was a cello player—with something like passion and gives you just the slightest feel for the future musician. His picture of 1920s LA has a vibrancy and spark that is missing in later parts of the book. It is the first 50 pages or so that feel true, whether they are or not, and given his early sexual exploits rendered in such detail, its hard to believe some of it. But there is a there there.

Autobiographies are seldom a list of facts, and given the structure of the book, it is even harder to take this as, at best, an impressionistic account of his past (the veracity of the book has been called into question in many places). The book is written in the third person. Mingus is called “my man”. In the youthful sections, the third person is used as a reflective agent, putting distance between Mingus the author and Mingus the character. The device allows him to not only narrate, but to comment on his life. When he becomes an adult, though, the book becomes a series of dialogs, full of hipster-isms and seeming in jokes. Of course the dialog is artificial, a novelization of his experiences, and instead of giving him a reflective distance turns the book into the kind of braggadocio I mentioned earlier.

Whoever said Beneath the Underdog was a Beat novel was on point. Even though there are redeeming elements I often felt I was reading On the Road the Complete Scroll for good, and a lot of bad. As a literary experiment there is something there but overall it is a misguided book.