In 1988, Jess Mowry was making his living by picking through garbage dumpsters for aluminum cans. With his earnings he bought a Royal typewriter for $8 at a school auction, and on that typewriter he wrote a novel about baby-faced 13-year-old street gangs in Oakland. Way Past Cool won't even hit the streets in hardcover from Farrar, Straus & Giroux until April, but already Disney has optioned the film rights.
Mowry grew up in Oakland and still lives there in an abandoned bus. His dad raised him from infancy, but that didn't keep Mowry from dropping out of eighth grade and working for a while as a bodyguard for a drug dealer. ''I was a normal, happy street kid,'' he says.
Mowry, 31, wrote Way Past Cool mostly for his own four kids and the pieced-together family of neighborhood youngsters he watches over. ''I spent the first half of my life doing a lot of things that I'm probably going to hell for, so I'm gonna spend what's left of it helping people. And these kids be just like something out of Dickens,'' Mowry says.
He is an urban observer, who poses penetrating questions about problems like black-on-black crime: ''What have they done to us whoever they is what have they done to us that makes us hold each other's lives so cheap?''
Mowry insists that doesn't make him an inner-city expert. ''I know what be happenin' in this three-block area in Oakland. There are a war goin' on here, and a kid alone got no chance. A kid can't walk alone without having his new Nikes stolen at gunpoint,'' Mowry says. ''Gangs are like people. There be good ones and bad ones. The Little Rascals was a gang. And these kids are like the Little Rascals with Uzis.''
He's still wary of his incipient fame. He did upgrade to a 30-year-old IBM electric typewriter, but one of his kids caught him picking cans from a dumpster the other day. ''So I don't get out of practice,'' he says.