Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book Review: Go Down Dead

Book Review: 'Go Down Dead' by Shane Stevens

5 / 5 Stars

In 1947, Irving Schulman published what is arguably the progenitor volume of the ‘teen street gang’ genre of literature with ‘The Amboy Dukes’, a novel about a group of Jewish teens involved in violence and mayhem on the streets of Brooklyn. The book was a hit, and led to two sequels, as well as a 1951 feature film, titled ‘City Across the River’.

The genre was further defined in 1958, with the publication of Harlan Ellison’s novel ‘Web of the City’ / ‘Rumble’, based on his experiences (so he claimed) with an Italian street gang in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn.

In 1959, Warren Miller published his novel ‘The Cool World’, which put the spotlight on black gangs.

‘Cool World’ was about a teenager and gang leader in the New York City ghetto named ‘Duke’ Custis. ‘Cool’ was set in the summer months, and followed Duke Custis’s efforts to prepare his gang, the Royal Crocadiles, for an upcoming rumble with their hated rivals, the Wolves. Miller’s novel was a first-person narrative related in Ebonics: "The reason summer time such a gas an a fake is because it come on like it gonna last for ever but you know it aint."

Shane Stevens, who, like Shulman, Miller, and Ellison, is white (an unwitting Chester Himes was so taken with ‘Go Down Dead’ that he praised Stevens as the ‘greatest black novelist in Harlem’), also got aboard the teen street gang genre with ‘Go Down Dead’ (1967; this Pocket Books paperback version was published in 1968). 

‘Go’ borrows pretty heavily from ‘The Cool World’, so much so that it could be argued that it’s a plagiarized version of Miller’s novel.

In ‘Go’, which is set in Harlem in the mid-60s, the protagonist is Adam Clayton Henry, who goes by his street name of ‘King’ Henry. As with Miller’s novel, ‘Go’ uses a first-person narrative related in Ebonics.

King is only sixteen, but his smarts and ambition have led him to be the leader of the Playboys, Harlem’s toughest street gang. The Playboys have been locked in a vicious war with a neighboring white gang, known as the Tigers; as the atrocities committed by each warring party increase in number and severity, King decides it’s time for a decisive rumble.

‘Go’ takes place over an eight-day interval, and follows King Henry as he tries to procure the armaments that will give the Playboys the edge in the upcoming battle. Henry’s efforts lead to encounters with some of the hustlers, criminals, whores, and gangsters who earn their living on the mean, desperate streets of Harlem. 

More so than Miller, Stevens focuses his narrative on the down-and-dirty aspects of ghetto life: plentiful cheap-and-easy sex, violence dished out by racist cops (referred to as ‘headbreakers’), scheming preachers, con men, slumming white hippie chicks infatuated with black men and their ‘tools’, and the despair that underlies every day spent in the confines of the ghetto.

Some of Stevens’ observations are quite contrived and exploitative: in one instance, King Henry observes that ghetto prostitutes use saran wrap as an impromptu condom (!), and 7-Up as an improvised douche, contrivances clearly designed to give the readers of the mid-60s the sort of illicit thrill that nowadays drives so many affluent suburban boys to listen to Gangsta Rap music. 

I won’t disclose any spoilers, save to say that Stevens does a good job of building up the suspense as the latter chapters lead to the decisive rumble. And, as should be the case with Ghetto Action literature, there is no fairy tale, uplifting ending.

‘Go Down Dead’, despite its derivative nature, remains a classic of teen street gang / urban lit. While both the original hardbound and paperback versions are available, they are unfortunately rather steeply priced, starting as $10 for copies in mediocre condition. If you can find a copy on the used bookstore shelves for less, by all means grab it.

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