The war in the Persian Gulf last year got saturation media coverage, but the war that goes on all the time in our cities, the one that produces over 400 casualties a year in the national capital, is usually disposed of, as Jess Mowry notes, in a paragraph on page 16 of the local paper. The soldiers at the front depicted in Mowry’s first novel are mostly 12 or 13 years old, and they’ve already learned to be stoical — ”Way Past Cool” — while exposing themselves to fire or taking a bullet: ”In another sort of war he might have won a medal.” The war here is between gangs — one called the Friends, the other the Crew — that control a few squalid square blocks each in West Oakland, Calif. Mowry knows the territory. Born in Mississippi in 1960, he grew up in Oakland, where he dropped out of school after the eighth grade. In 1988 he bought a used typewriter for $8 and began writing the stories that went into his first book, Rats in the Trees.
In the anarchy of West Oakland, where the cops are on the take and in league with the dealers, the gangs provide a rough — very rough — approximation of order. They have leaders and delegated duties and observe a strict protocol that allows them to call a truce or receive the occasional ”’bassador” from the other gang without ”doing” (killing) him or being done by him. (”Murder…was a word you didn’t hear too often, strangely enough, on the streets where it happened all the time. People got ‘done,’ ‘smoked,’ ‘iced,’ ‘wasted’…little kids talked of ‘dirt naps.”’) The gang saves an 8-year-old kid from a gunpoint mugging by an older kid and defends the building where they hang out, chasing away (and setting on fire) a junkie-turned-burglar. But they’re still children, watching kids’ shows on TV and consuming Popsicles with their beer. Their lives consist of mixing the make-believe with the real: ”Black kids played at being bad. And died for it.”
Their precarious balance of power is threatened now by a 16-year-old drug dealer named Deek, who cruises around in a Trans-Am and arranges drive-by shootings of both gangs. He has a bodyguard named Ty, who sees no reason not to be as cynical and ruthless as his boss but can’t quite manage it. For one thing, he’s got a 12-year-old brother he’d like to save from Deek’s drug- baited lures, and for another, there’s Markita, a girl who, with her infant son, seems to offer a nearly ungraspable alternative: ”The real mystery was how you could start a family of your own to love and be loved by when all you got from the world was hate or indifference.”
The plot, sped along by coincidence toward a stirring and thoroughly unbelievable battle, isn’t really the point. The point is embodied in Ty and in a gentle gang member, Lyon, who ”read books because he wanted to.” Both of them have the sense of being on a ”quest” in a world that seems to offer no object for it, a world in which the pursuit of knowledge or spiritual understanding is scorned as ”churchy s—,” but which provides no alternative except ritualized violence and self-destruction. They are trapped in the caste mentality imposed on but also cultivated by the boys, an expectation of exclusion and failure that is cemented by the remote, august authority of TV: ”If you were rich and white and got caught doing drugs you had a dependency problem. You went on TV and told everybody how sorry you were and checked into a place for rich f—ups.” This isn’t an outstanding novel in a purely literary sense, but it’s a remarkable, blunt, and disturbing book.