As titles go, this one pretty much spells out what’s in store for the reader following the turbulent, engaging and, at times, overwhelming experiences of four Latino ‘kids’, their extended families, friends and acquaintances in New York City’s tough south Bronx neighbourhood.
Such a prosaic title is fitting too because this extraordinary work that reads like a piece of fiction is, in fact, non-fiction. Commencing in 1984, the author spent 11 years documenting the book’s ‘leads’, brother and sister, Cesar and Jessica, her friend and his girlfriend, Coco, and Jessica’s ‘husband’ and drug lord, ‘Boy’ George.
It was through covering George’s trial, which saw him sentenced at 23 years of age to life without parole, that Le Blanc met Jessica, Cesar and Coco. Jessica, for whom “love was the most interesting place to go and beauty was the ticket”, is headstrong, fearless and passionate. “[she] appeared to have no boundaries, as though she were the country of sex itself.”
Boys (men) are her weakness and “she gravitated towards the enterprising boys, the boys with money, who were mostly the ones dealing drugs.” After a couple of flirtations, one of which leaves her pregnant with her first daughter Serena aka Little Star, she meets her destiny ‘Boy’ George, a man who just past his teens is grossing $500,000 a week from his drug empire. The appeal for Jessica is irresistible. Clothes, cars, whatever she wants become hers, and before long Cesar gravitates towards the easy money, working for George.
Handsome and smart, “Cesar had gone from acting like a hoodlum to being one. As he remembers it, he went from playing tag to hiding drugs in his pocket to carrying guns.” One quarter of a street crew, FMP, and its acknowledged leader, Cesar, as if a character in a Greek tragedy, ultimately gets sent down not for dealing drugs, but for accidently shooting dead one of his crew during a street shout out. Before this happens though, his girl Coco, of whom people would say “Coco’s just regular”, falls pregnant with their first daughter, Mercedes (Mercy). The die is cast. By the age of 16 going on 17 in Jessica’s case, each girl has a child, each man in their life is in prison.
LeBlanc records their lives objectively. She’s omniscient but never intrusive in the drama, allowing everyone to speak for him or herself and notes she was present for much of what is depicted [here]; some scenes were recounted [to me]. Her prose is muscular and unrelenting, and, in contradiction, what is at first the book’s strength begins to become what makes it less interesting. There’s no pause or change of rhythm. The effect is the action is rendered soap operatic. Seemingly, one more ‘incident’ is paraded before us for our amazement, and then another one. We are told what happened and who said what but we never learn why. Reported speech is invariably sound bite and motives are rarely, if ever, discussed. Sadly, one begins to care less about the characters’ fate. And it’s not their fault. These people are not fictional but real with lives that are their own to live as they see fit.
LeBlanc, we can assume, understands this (instinctively, her intentions, we feel, are honourable) but the very construct of presenting fact in a fictional story-telling style, after a while, has us read it as fiction. Had LeBlanc made her presence known in the narrative and therefore given it context, we may feel differently. Our empathy, or not as the case may be, would be more readily evoked. As it is, this reader is left feeling let down, and none the wiser as to the whys and wherefores. Maybe this is what LeBlanc intended. Perhaps there are no answers, so why ask questions? Fate. Shit happens. Maybe gallows humour, as one of Cesar’s crew knew only too well, is the only way to survive.
“Rocco was more interested in the gangster lifestyle; when asked his age, he would jokingly reply, ‘Twenty-five to life.’” At the time he was 14, maybe 15.