Monday, June 15, 2015

The Coloring Book - Colin Quinn (Book Review)

"The only problem that can never be solved is racism because too many people don't understand what the fuck it even means, and don't really want to." 

This quote was actually (mildly paraphrased) from my father about fifteen years ago but it succeeds in summing up The Coloring Book perfectly. "Race Relations", which Colin Quinn claims he solves in the aforementioned book, is a subject that is so intricately complex yet so pathetically simple it's no wonder it causes everything from laughter, anger, annoyance, violence, rigorous debate and lethargy. The problem is, the majority of those involved in the battles about the subject-and even more so those trying to solve it-don't even truly understand where the solutions lie, or what they're arguing about. I won't attempt to dissect the entire issue here or offer my own solutions as Colin's book does a great job of tearing into the issue with both levity and calculated reason. 

The Coloring Book is what every book written by a Comedian should be: Mostly autobiographical, candid, self deprecating, slightly disjointed, thought provoking and most importantly, funny as hell. As most of the very few people who read my Blog or Twitter feed know, I am a longtime fan of Colin and I have had the pleasure of hanging out with him a couple times briefly. Keeping that disclaimer in mind-and also understanding that on the list of people who Colin loves/respects/admires I am probably a number larger than the weight of a Manatee-don't think for a second I'd glorify his book if it was rubbish. Some of his talk show appearances, snippets of his standup, sure they could use a tweak here and there but The Coloring Book is a winner from beginning to end.

CQ opens the book with an introduction that briefly illustrates Park Slope-the area of Brooklyn he grew up in-as recalled from his youth. Almost immediately he dives into his theories and opinion on racial discord, its origins and subsequent proliferation and why it's a misunderstood problem. Coming from an often misunderstood comedian it's an enlightening read in those first few pages, setting the tone for what unfolds as a captivating and often riotous exegesis of his own early life amongst the many "colors" of the city he lived.

Having had a father who was a comedian for several years, I have always been fascinated with the quote that my old man frequently recited, "comedy comes from pain." When you decipher the subtext in a comedians jokes or begin to discern the real message in the stories they tell, so often you learn that humor was a reactionary device to shield them from a multitude of horrors, sometimes self induced though more often environmental. Quinn never suggests abuse or any form of torturous childhood but instead paints somewhat cloudy pictures of the internal battles he fought as a kid to feel loved, respected and even feared. He eludes to a matter-of-fact, if not cold Mother who, on some level, he was likely always trying to please. His use, and eventual overuse, of alcohol was an elixir meant to conjure bravery just as much as it was a tonic to quell whatever demons lurked.

One of the most intriguing elements of The Coloring Book is where Quinn discusses "Colum", an alter ego of sorts he created to aid in the formation of a tough guy persona, get chicks and leave behind the perceived flaws of Colin. As is the case with so many who engage in similar endeavors, Colum's arrival went hand in hand with drug and alcohol use-it's a lot easier to look a guy in the face and tell him you're going to fuck his girlfriend if a part of you knows the eventual ass kicking won't hurt as bad. Until Tomorrow.

As Colin tells his stories he weaves the racial component in beautifully. Vividly describing various characters, accents and mannerisms while never being condescending or blatantly stereotypical. A running theme of The Coloring Book is "How can we 'celebrate diversity' if we want to pretend we are all the same?" and he's dead on with this. Racism isn't the belief that individuals of different cultural backgrounds or heritage exhibit specific behaviors or traits-good or bad-but instead that a particular race is inferior. What Quinn does in this book is poetically and comedically illustrate the nuances of the many different races that lived and worked all around him as a child yet never condescending to or demeaning them. Instead he celebrates those differences the way only a brilliant and veteran comic can.

Colin jumps around in The Coloring Book a lot, a device which a lot of readers get annoyed by, yet I feel suits my ADHD afflicted mind well. I love his ability to move through the revelry of his youth to a later career anecdote and then dive right into a summation of a particular trait exhibited by the majority of a certain race. As each story unfolds they all brush across the racial landscape but what makes The Coloring Book brilliant is its ability to stay focused on that theme-from Colin's firsthand and obviously biased perspective-while covering so much ground. There's never a part of this read where I found myself disengaged, uninterested or longing for a laugh. 

There are numerous excerpts I could quote from The Coloring Book, many hysterical and typical Colin, some powerfully poignant and revealing and a few that will have the average reader a little misty eyed. Instead of splice it up in that fashion it's best to have you read it for yourself as a whole piece and enjoy the journey into the mind of one of the worlds best comics. Quinn doesn't "solve" race relations as the title implies he does, but instead he carves up the whole discussion of race in a way that all of us should, unafraid to be honest and forthright about our differences that too often are perceived as flaws vs. what makes all of us uniquely engaging. Yes, we need to "have a talk about race" in this country, and in the world, but if we can't do it with a little self deprecation and truth then we have already failed. 

The Coloring Book is a biography-lite from a gifted storyteller and comedian. It covers a lot of ground while never alienating the reader and Colin's language is equal parts clown and poetic while educating you the whole way. Anyone who follows his career knows that Coljn is a very smart guy, but perhaps what makes him a likely genius is that with all his wannabe tough guy Irish "I don't give a fuck" attitude he layers just enough charm, sophistication and compassion to make him endearing, and I believe that's by design, at least partially. Sure, his Twitter account will make the vast majority of his followers want to scalp him or employ some other form of race-specific torture (to stay topical), but somehow CQ always finds a way to lull us all back into the pathetic sycophants we are, and that's just fine.

Colin has said isn't concerned if he sells any copies of this book, and I think that's half in jest but in reality he will probably sell thousands because it's an engaging and wonderful read. For the guy who "doesn't give a care" he certainly poured his heart and soul into this work and it's a rewarding experience for the reader and hopefully a cathartic one for him.


The Coloring Book is available now in Hardcover, Audiobook and E Reader formats. 

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