Review of DODGERS by Bill Beverly
The first allowance-money purchase I can recall was a cassette copy of Run-DMC’s Raising Hell as a second-grader in some certainly long-defunct chain store. I can’t quite explain what led an eight year-old in small-town East Texas to hip-hop. I can just say that it spoke to me in a way little else had. I’m sure I had absolutely no idea what most of it meant, but I loved it. That’s stuck with me throughout my life.
Any child that started out on Run-DMC almost certainly graduated, at some point, to three-minute tales of urban crime, whether the Mafioso fantasies of Kool G Rap, the brazen ultraviolence of the Geto Boys, or the street-gang images of LA gangsta rap. It’s been leveled that listening to these stories was a form of ghetto tourism for lily-white kids like me, and that may be fair. I’m not here to psychoanalyze myself. However, some of the most captivating songs I’ve ever heard dealt with dealing drugs, in some form or fashion.
The pull and the gravitas of the best of these songs (for my money, it’s hard to beat Ice Cube’s “My Summer Vacation”) has rarely translated to other mediums. Instead, efforts to document the street drug trade too often come across as hyper-real fever dreams dipped in testosterone, thoroughly unbelievable, or just plain corny as hell. Of course, there are exceptions; Richard Price’s novel CLOCKERS comes to mind, as does HBO’s epic The Wire.
DODGERS, the debut from Bill Beverly, is among the exceptions. I picked this novel expecting some serious hood shit. The blurbs described a street gang drama, left images of Poot, Wallace, and Boadie dancing in my head. For 50 pages or so, this is exactly what I got; DODGERS begins as a more tightly coiled and terse cousin of CLOCKERS. Little did I know that I would internally compare this thing to the likes of CATCHER IN THE RYE, ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, and ON THE ROAD after 200 more pages.
East is a fifteen year-old yard boy, keeping watch over one of employer Fin’s drug houses in the Boxes of South Central Los Angeles, managing the crew and the day-to-day. When the house under East’s control is seized in a bloody police raid, Fin must hold East responsible. To pay for his error, Fin sends East on a mission to Wisconsin to murder a witness in an upcoming trial against Fin’s organization. Forced to turn in phones and other electronics, along with their weapons, East, college boy Michael Wilson, personable and pragmatic Walter, and East’s trigger-happy little brother Ty climb into an unassuming van pointed northwest.
Yeah…there are crimes. So…I guess this is a crime novel. It’s also an examination of criminal mentality, both for those who need crime as an outlet and those who approach crime as a business. It’s a study in competing leadership styles. A series of landscape paintings stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Midwest. It’s a crime novel that isn’t necessarily for everyone. Yet, it probably should be read by everyone.
Let’s get one thing straight: this isn’t a roller coaster ride. If you want a thrill-a-minute beach read, look elsewhere. This is a deliberate, haunting coming of age novel, jammed full of careful and accomplished characterization and beautiful prose that hip-checks poetry up and down the ice. For heaven’s sake, this book actually says things about the American Dream that I would wager you haven’t heard before. And, let’s be honest: we all think we’ve read too much about the American Dream. Nope. Bill Beverly has something new and enchanting to tell you.
In a book about South Central gangbangers.
Yeah, it’s like that.