Written by Bill Beverly — A modern crime classic in the tradition of Richard Price’s Clockers, Dodgers is the story of a youthful soldier in the south Los Angeles drug trade. East, a black 16-year-old, is a yardman for a drug house, which means he runs a team of younger boys who look out for approaching trouble, 24 hours a day. Somehow, trouble slips past them, and when the police converge on the house, sirens shrieking, East narrowly escapes. But before he flees, the curious younger girl who has approached him is caught in the crossfire and dies before his eyes, an innocent whose death he cannot shake. The intermingling of East’s past with his indifferent mother, his more recent gang ‘family’, and the present give the story much of its emotional resonance.
The raid has compromised the house so the drug lord gives East a new assignment. He and three others are to drive to Wisconsin and kill a man about to testify in Los Angeles against one of the gang leaders. In the great American tradition of road trips, East heads east on a fateful journey with an ill-assorted group of companions: Michael Wilson, a self-assured, one-time UCLA student who thinks he’s by far the intellectual superior of the other boys; Walter, an overweight peer of East’s with an aptitude for electronic crime and a greater understanding of the big picture; and East’s younger brother Ty, a stone killer at age 13 whose internal dynamics East cannot begin to comprehend. He and East are an uncomfortable pair in the confines of the nondescript van they are driving on this 2000 mile trek.
All the interactions among the four are absolutely believable, full of youthful wit and jockeying for position, even though the outcome of the journey is uncertain and potentially catastrophic. The last piece of advice they receive before leaving LA? “Don’t make no friends.”
The book takes its title from the boys’ purchases at they make before leaving – shirts and caps emblazoned with the LA Dodgers logo. East and the others have never cared about the team personally but, they reason, “White people love baseball. White people love the Dodgers.”
The trip across America and the notice four young black men arouse among the residents of the middle-America states – and the fear of the notice they may arouse – are significant and compelling features of the plot. There are actions the four of them simply cannot take and difficulties that they must contend with for the sole reason that they are black. Beyond the boys’ shaky situation, the writing itself is noteworthy in its foreboding: “He followed Michael to the van, every bit of air a puzzle, every person a future event.”
There’s violence in the story, and the violence has consequences, not only for its victims but for East. The nuanced depiction of his mental states makes for rich and engaging reading. Despite East’s many handicaps, he is written as a young man that you can understand and, as a result, definitely care about. He makes reasonable choices, given the world as he sees it. He makes mistakes. He recognises them and is haunted by them.
Beverly is a teacher of American literature and writing at Trinity University in Washington, DC, and the quality of his writing is a great strength of the book. Take this simple description: “There was a gas station. The lights in the cold made the cars gleam like licked suckers.” Any author who can conjure up an image like that deserves to be savoured.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars