In a strange land

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DODGERS. By Bill Beverly. Read by J.D. Jackson. Random House Audio. 10 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Crown.

dodgersI’m ashamed to admit that, after having received the review copy I had requested of Bill Beverly’s unforgettable new book, I dragged my heels about listening to Dodgers. Other books, books with characters and stories with whom I could more easily identify, or books that promised to transport me to a world I’d like to inhabit for a time, were more enticing. After all, the first paragraph of the description on the back of Dodgers told me that the protagonist is a 15-year-old, seasoned gang member from South Central L.A. who is sent to Wisconsin to murder a key witness in a case against his uncle, Fin. What could I find to identify with in that story?

The answer to that question is; humanity. And the way that Beverly makes us realize that humanity, to care about this boy, is a major part of his genius as a writer. East, the 15-year-old who’s earned his stripes “standing yard” – running a crew that watches a drug house – quickly becomes a boy who would never ask for but wins our compassion. He cares about his mother, who surely seems worthless to anybody else. He is haunted by the face of a girl whose death he witnessed. He has his own ideas of right and wrong, ideas that he re-examines more often than most of us do. Despite difficult living conditions, he tries to be neat and tidy. And despite having seen and perpetrated more horrors than most of us will know in a lifetime, he’s obviously a child, however much he might be trying to be a man.

East doesn’t set out on his murderous mission alone. No, his uncle sends him with a crew: his 13-year-old half-brother, Ty, who’s violent and a lot more knowledgeable than East; Walter, an overweight boy who’s surprisingly gentle and intelligent; and Michael Wilson, who’s been to college and thinks he knows more than he does.

The four are sent out in a nondescript but reliable vehicle, with what should be sufficient cash and fake IDs. The title comes from the Dodgers T-shirts they wear by way of disguise. They are instructed to leave their cell phones and ATM cards in LA. They have instructions about how to obtain guns when they get closer to their target.

The way the story develops, it’s entirely credible that these boys might be sent to do such a serious job. Nobody knows them. They won’t arouse suspicions. The uncle has a special place in his heart for East. And they generally follow orders, at least when they come from Fin.

The journey itself is an eye-opening story, with more than a little humor. The boys’ world is LA. They know little more about the Midwest than they do about France, or Japan, orTimbuktu. They look upon the world of white people warily and curiously. And, of course, they have their disagreements. They haven’t been on the road long when Michael Wilson decides they need to have the Las Vegas experience, with nearly disastrous results.

Things go wrong. Obtaining the guns isn’t as easy as it was supposed to be. Finding phone booths is a pain. And then things go very wrong.

Before long, East finds himself alone, cold, hungry and almost without resources as the Midwestern winter is setting in. As he travels – eventually, on foot – through the alien countryside, East is able to see that even white people in America’s heartland may have difficult lives. The drug houses where he worked in LA are called “the Boxes,” and East uses old cardboard boxes to make his own place to sleep. Yet he can also see that struggling people who live in trailers or shabby houses are in boxes of their own. He’s not dealing in symbols, just making sense of what he sees.

Beverly’s subtle irony deepens when East finds a refuge working at a paintball range. When this boy who’s fired guns with real ammunition in dead seriousness first stumbles upon the big old building where grown men play games, he can’t fathom what he’s seeing.

As East settles in to life at the range, you almost think Beverly is going to deliver an improbably neat, happy ending – and, by now pulling for East against great odds, you hope he does. Life isn’t quite that easy, however, but Beverly does give East and the reader hope that, even when things are tough, people can make choices and have some say about who they are and what sort of world they live in.

Beautifully and convincingly written, this quickly becomes a riveting book. J.B. Jackson’s reading does it credit in the audio version.

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