Book review: Dodgers

‘Dodgers’ is Bill Beverly’s dazzling crime novel that follows the blood-soaked journey of East, a Los Angeles gang member, and his three friends sent on a mission to kill a key witness. John Daly savours the grizzly tale.

Book review: Dodgers

Bill Beverly

No Exit Press, €20

DODGERS has surely elicited more than the usual share of acclaim for a debut novel.

Since its publication in the US earlier this year, fellow authors and reviewers have been tripping over their superlatives in praise of a work variously compared to JD Salinger, Kerouac, Dickens and PD James.

“Reading Dodgers is like having the veil lifted from your eyes,” said one.

“The world is more vivid, more intense, more exquisite, and more terrifying than you ever knew.”

Plot-wise, the story follows a journey across America by four black teenagers, street kid lookouts employed to ‘stand yard’ upon drug den ‘boxes’ — who are sent on a mission to kill a key witness in an upcoming drug trial.

The opening line neatly summarises their life experience: “The Boxes was all the boys knew; it was the only place.”

The main protagonist is East, a wise beyond his years 15-year-old who oversees a team of kids barely into their teens.

“He was no fun, and they respected him, for though he was young, he had none in him of what they hated most in themselves: their childishness. He had never been a child.”

One morning, however, the drug house is raided by police, and one of East’s watchers fails to give sufficient warning, resulting in a chaotic bust where an innocent girl is killed by a stray bullet.

Rather than the expected reprimand of death for a botched job from drug lord Fin, who is also his uncle, East is instead despatched with three others to Wisconsin to accomplish an assassination that may redeem them.

Led by East, the team consists of Ty, his psychotic half-brother; Walter, academically bright and overweight, who specialises in forged identities; and Michael Wilson, a college sports star chosen to lend the group a degree of middle-class credibility should they be stopped by police en route.

Ranging in age from 13 to 20, the would-be assassins share a common trait — none has ever ventured outside the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, with one of them exclaiming utter surprise that a black man really lives in Wisconsin.

The quartet are advised to meet any official enquiry along the way with the cover of attending a family reunion in Milwaukee.

“Don’t let nobody ask you more than three questions.”

The book’s title refers to the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball gear the four are outfitted with by their drug masters — a handy camouflage to help them blend in the interior of a country where their skin colour will be a distinct rarity.

“White people love baseball. White people love the Dodgers.”

In a journey where they stop only at gas stations, sleep in the van, and pay cash for everything, the four embark on their claustrophobic mission — a group as alien to each other as they are to the unexplored territory they are about to investigate.

Leaving the familiar grime and smog of LA in the rearview mirror, they enter an unfamiliar world whose strangeness and isolation seem far more dangerous than the world they know.

“Here the ground was nearly empty of buildings and the mountains were like people, huddled figures, blue and gray and white, so high.”

Beverly, a native of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and who now lives in Maryland, explained how the road trip as a rite of passage is indeed an American cultural staple — but one limited to certain sections of society.

“White Americans have travelled the landscape, at least the landscape that genocide emptied out for the last century of cars and roads, differently than people of colour have travelled it. Maybe East reminds us how that mythic landscape isn’t quite the same for all of us.”

As the four venture deeper into America’s interior, East’s tenuous grip on leadership is continually challenged as the van’s close quarters leads to incessant bickering and violent outbursts.

“Kill a man? More like keep them from killing each other, these three boys, for two thousand miles in this ugly van. That was what they’d brought him in for. That was what he had to do to get back home.”

At odds with each other as well as the dropping temperatures when they ascend into The Rockies, the differences between them ratchet up to implosion point, ultimately leading to wrong decisions heaped on wrong decisions, close encounters with police, and everywhere the curious looks of white people at four African Americans travelling through their districts.

“We ain’t in the woods anymore,” one of them observes at a truck stop.

“There’s a hundred cops right over there. And the longer we stay here, the blacker we get.”

As well as his ear for inner-city dialogue that bristles in every exchange within the van, Beverly contrasts it against wonderfully descriptive passages evoking the hollow core of America’s vast interior.

“Houses thrown up like milk cartons in lonely space — dingy, flat, unpainted cinder-block foundations.

"Strips of siding hanging off the corners like bandages. In front of each waited a little collection of beat-up vehicles like a boy would arrange in a sandbox.”

The author saves his best prose for the characters that pepper the story — rural gun brokers, small town drug dealers and the unemployed men who pass hours staring into space at the local doughnut shop.

At one point, the four become separated, and East finds himself without transport or money, lost in a landscape where he feels even a poorly phrased question might land him in trouble.

Walking through a small town and seeking shelter against a cold so well described even Irish readers will applaud its poetic power, East finds temporary work at a paintball range.

In one of the book’s longest passages, he is befriended by the owner Perry, who asks no questions about this teen’s background as he notes the diligent work ethic that quickly benefits the business.

The customers who frequent the range are mostly out of work and uneducated, part-time labourers with families they can barely support.

The paintball range has become a refuge from their responsibilities, as well as a sanctuary from the realisation of their failures.

“These days, most of these boys who come in here every day, secretly, the thing they want is for that girl to turn them out,” Perry explains.

“She can keep the house. The sooner she gets another man, the sooner he is free. He can’t fix nothing anyway. Got his beer and his PlayStation. Can’t look his dad in the eye. That’s what I mean. We were up there, and we’ve come down to this.”

The character of East was likened to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield by one reviewer, and it is surely not an unfair comparison.

Viewing his world with a combination of innocence and world-weary experience, he is an endearing creation, in spite of his criminal deeds.

As well as his descriptive ability, Beverly excels in the crafting of his characters — an exercise that is made all the more arresting when teenagers discourse adult in tones far beyond their years.

The final page leaves the door slightly ajar for a sequel, and one can only wait to see what kind of trip the accomplished Bill Beverly will take us on next.

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