Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog is Exhausting to Read

“Beneath the Underdog” by Charles Mingus [Canongate]

I’ve been reading the same book for a month.

It’s not a particularly long book. I’ve been pretty busy, but not so busy that I haven’t had time to read. I haven’t been taking my time to savor the prose.

“Beneath the Underdog” is just exhausting to read.

I see the merits of Charles Mingus’ much-touted autobiography. I mentioned the oddity of the perspective it’s written in in a FN&OTOW a few weeks ago – the bulk of Mingus’ life is re-told from the point of view of an unnamed conscience-like character that’s ‘been with him’ basically since birth. A sort of Jiminy Cricket that lives inside Charles’ head instead of hitchhiking on his shoulder.

It’s interesting. Refreshing. At first.

Unlike a lot of auto/biographies I’ve read “Beneath the Underdog” dedicates a decent amount of it’s page count to recounting Mingus’ childhood. This portion of the book benefits from the narrator character, adding an odd layer of perspective to Charles’ unsteady upbringing.

It gives much appreciated distance to some uncomfortable moments, occasional wisdom to others.

Once Charles reaches his late teens, however, things change. The story feels much more present from here, becoming dialogue heavy and quick paced.

The narrator is still narrating, keeping us distanced from some of the inner thoughts of Mingus anyone reading his autobiography is looking for. They begin to feel like an unnecessary obstacle and an afterthought all at once, not participating in the crafting of the narrative like they did when Mingus was younger, while keeping us at bay from the more intimate (and interesting) parts of Mingus’ mind.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the dialogue that replaced the more thoughtful prose was … good. It’s not.

Every character speaks the same way – like Mingus. It makes sense as to why this is obviously, but in long scenes with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, and so many other hugely famous musicians with cults of personality as big or bigger than Mingus’ own, you want their distinct personalities to come through.

Mingus also clearly has some serious beef with speech tags, hardly ever using them even in a scene with half a dozen people speaking to each other. Band conversations feel like a Genie scene from Aladdin, only it’s hard to follow what’s happening. It’s baffling that editors let this book be published as it is, and dialogue like this dominates the book once Charles begins adulthood.

There’s also no way around it – this is the horniest autobiography I’ve ever read. If you like poorly written smut with lots of overly-descriptive yelling, this is the book for you.

Mix all this together and “Beneath the Underdog” – as wild, one-of-a-kind and wickedly full of debauchery as it can be – becomes a slog to read.

Believe it or not, all of this still could’ve been forgiven.

Biographies aren’t exactly page turners, even at their best. In my experience, the best ones are fairly meditative. You’re not on the edge of your seat, dying to know what happens next.

You read someone’s autobiography because you want to learn more about them as a person or as an artist/actor/director, whatever – and the way they think. The way they thought when they were establishing the body of work you enjoy or respect.

“Beneath the Underdog” barely mentions Mingus’ music career. In fact, it’s difficult to track where we are in his career at any point in the book. I latched onto any tidbit of an album mention to get any idea of how prominent Mingus was in the jazz world at that point of the book.

There’s basically no mention of his creative process. No mention of most of his best-known songs. No mention of writing anything really. Mingus seems to have no reverence for his own work, clearly convinced people would be more interested in reading him boast about his sexual exploits instead.

And just to twist the knife there are brief moments where Mingus himself takes over the narration – writing in first person – and pens some genuinely gorgeous musings on the state his life was in. These sections are diamonds in the raunchy rough and huge slaps in the face, basically telling the reader ‘I could make this good if I wanted to’.

“Beneath the Underdog” somehow turns sex, drugs, and jazz into one of the most monotonous, messy books I’ve ever read. My eyes have never glazed over reading a book so often.

Eventually I got to the point where I would read a whole page without actually reading the page, and I just stopped going back. It was the same as the last one, and the one after it will be the same too.

“Beneath the Underdog” was a huge disappointment. Unless you’re really hard-up for smut right now, I couldn’t recommend it to anyone, even the biggest Charles Mingus fans. It seems to me he wrote this for himself and truly no one else.

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