After creating the Tumblr Texts From Bennett in November 2011, Kansas City rapper Mac Lethal (real name: David McCleary “Mac” Sheldon) and his gangsta wannabe cousin Bennett — and the texts they exchange — became an Internet sensation. The meme blew up as quickly as it seemed to fade, as Internet memes are wont to do.
Lethal posted screenshots of text messages he received from Bennett, his cousin who is a “white boy that thinks he’s a Crip, is currently unemployed, has a girlfriend named Mercedes, and is one of the most unintentionally funny and brilliant souls on the planet,” as explained on the Texts From Bennett Tumblr page.
Bennett’s texts feature misspellings and swearing, ranging in topics from hooking up with women to selling weed to making fun of Lethal for buying Jamba Juice (“jamba juice!” Bennett texts scathingly, “i bet when you were born da doctor said ‘it’s kind of a boy!’”) The texts range from hilarious to jaw-dropping to unbelievable. Followers accused the Tumblr page of masquerading as truth, which prompted Lethal to create multiple posts asserting its authenticity as it gained popularity.
These possibly real text messages provide the starting point for Lethal’s new book, “Texts From Bennett.” Like the Tumblr page, its story straddles the gray area of memoir and fiction. Lethal’s book, however, is labeled a novel, adding more shadow to the gray area of the content’s supposed reality.
The novel tells the story of how Bennett, his mother and her boyfriend come to live with Lethal during one summer after losing their home to foreclosure. Lethal, the fiction’s narrator, is a fairly successful rapper in his own right. He raps about “day-to-day things people of all races go through.” He lives with his fiancée, Harper, in a home in an undisclosed neighborhood of Kansas City. Harper, a snotty WASP from Vermont, does not appreciate having the newcomers in her life, and, as expected, chaos ensues.
Bennett’s shenanigans range from stealing Harper’s Adderall, to offending Lethal’s African-American neighbors with his gangsta speak, to stealing neighbors’ cats for reward money, to unleashing the wrath of his crazy girlfriend Mercedes on unsuspecting Harper. Intermixed with anecdotes of Bennett’s behavior are texts he exchanges with his cousin that build the core of the book, both in humor and in likability.
“(Women) thnk ur a vary good lissener. U make dem hot choclat and talk abut Team edwrd,” Bennett accuses his cousin in one of his usual garbled texts after Lethal complains about his failures with women. Other text messages describe Bennett’s favorite stuffed animal (named Hustla Da Rabbit) and his throwing an old tomato at a boss.
Bennett is crass and offensive, yet Lethal renders him not just as a cartoon character but a sympathetic being who wants to help his cousin. Bennett outs Harper after she cheats on Lethal with turtleneck-wearing, vegan Chad, saving Lethal from continuing the farce of a relationship. Bennett then tutors Lethal on how to pick up ladies with his “Commandmints of Gittin’ B****z,” a rather harmless list that includes treating women as friends (despite the name) and being kind to haters. The “commandmints” prove fruitful, as Lethal meets his future wife by the end of the book.
In direct contrast to Bennett’s gangsta speak and lack of education, Lethal writes his narrative of this memorable summer in prose that feels heavy and clunky. Exotic word choices punctuate the writing, ringing off-key notes. In one section, Lethal describes Bennett’s girlfriend Mercedes as having “nomadic” hair, “exposing the retinas” of her angry gaze. He ends this heavy description of Mercedes’ anger with one of the oddest notes in the entire symphony of the novel, writing that her eyes “transformed colors like the four-hundred-year-old anticyclonic storm on the surface of Jupiter.”
This extra effort to show Lethal as educated and enlightened accomplishes the opposite: the character of Lethal seems self-aggrandizing without much to temper the feeling. Ironically, Bennett remains the most fully realized — or enlightened — character within the story, ranging from ridiculous to thoughtful to absurdly selfish. Lethal is just pompous, despite admitting that Bennett has more within him than the ability to write ridiculous text messages.
By the end of the novel, Lethal wraps up this farcical story by shaping Bennett into someone who can teach Lethal a few things about life, surprising Lethal since he assumed he was the one teaching Bennett. The blatant attempt at irony within the conclusion — an ending seen in the distance the moment the story began — feels as clunky as the odd language choices. Ultimately, Lethal’s novel works best when it’s outrageously humorous; its attempts at introspection only produce a mangled reflection in the mirror.