GOOD AMERICAN STORYTELLERS remind us of the variety in our language. Mark Twain captured the cicadalike buzz of American boyhood, while Ralph Ellison inflected those years with a sonorous blue note. With his knockout debut, slapboxing with jesus (Vintage) 27-year-old Victor LaValle continues to widen the range of American fiction, adding the jabbing, gritty bravado of America's city youth.
While they don't occupy the city's gutter, LaValle's characters don't have a confident purchase on main street. They hail from New York City's less glamorous neighborhoods and boroughs--Harlem, Queens, the Bronx--and know their 'hoods well. They've grown up in cramped tenement apartments that they share with siblings and grandmothers--the kind of buildings where someone is always cooking, and where the rooms are so confining you have to hit the fire escape for fresh air. Most of their fathers have left long ago yet somehow manage to make their absence felt. "Fathers were leaving all types of things behind with which their sons might remember them," says the narrator of "kids on colden street." Perhaps the most important things those fathers have left behind are their sons.
Without their pops around, LaValle's characters must watch one another's backs. They help their friends get laid, dodge the unwinnable fights, and win the ones worth fighting. They call each other "my boy" and invent the kinds of nicknames that only boys can give one another: Horse, Knowledge, and Cocoa. As one might guess by the putdowns embedded in such terms of endearment, LaValle's cast isn't always kind. In "ancient history," two recent high school graduates fight over whose next step--be it the army or something else--will be the straightest shot out of Queens. In "Trinidad," a young boy betrays his best friend with whom he's been "experimenting" in order to assure his mother he's not a "faggot." And in "chuckie," a young boy watches helplessly as two bullies beat his buddy to a pulpy mess. That's the way it goes, as the ten-year-old narrator states: "[T]here was only one kid I ever cared for and his name wasn't Chuckie. It wasn't any of these guys."
These guys grow up young. They learn the places not to walk, the places in Burger King not to sit, and most of all, whom not to trust--that being pretty much everyone. About the only people they will open themselves to are their mothers, or the girl they're seeing for the long term. Though this bleak judgment might strike some readers as cold, LaValle's characters see it as liberating. As the narrator of "class trip," says: "That was the best thing about guys--trust comes quick and no one cries when it's over." In most cases, this fear of letting their guard down perpetuates the problems it is meant to protect against. In "pops," a young, black kid meets his dad, who is a white cop from Connecticut. The boy is so busy playing it cool that he almost misses a chance to grasp something essential.
As the collection's title suggests, these young men are slapboxing with a partner who probably won't hit back. One continues to hope, and in some stories LaValle does too, that they will eventually lower their fists so that they can see what's in front of them.