Dodgers by Bill Beverly
This impressive novel has been lauded and applauded by many commentators, including The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Irish Times to name but a few. The praise is strong and well deserved. Dodgers is a very fine read indeed.
East is a 15-year-old black gang member from Compton in LA. His entire life has been a struggle for survival. East’s mother is an alcoholic, and his 13-year-old brother, Ty, has become a sociopathic triggerman for the criminal gang that also employs East as a ‘Yardman’.
It’s when the cops manage to successfully raid the crack house that East has responsibility for watching over, that the young gangster finds himself called to a meeting with Fin, the mercurial leader of the organisation. East has always believed Fin to be the brother of his absentee father, but it emerges that Fin is actually his father (not quite Luke and Darth). Not that it seems to make any difference to the crime boss who nevertheless gives East a dubious chance to redeem himself.
Fin has put together a team who will undertake a dangerous mission to Wisconsin. The team consists of East, Ty, Michael Wilson – who is in charge – and Walter, a college boy who provides much of the smarts for the gang. Their objective is simple, kill a black judge who has betrayed Fin.
And so the scene is set for what is a thrilling ride through the American heartland, as the young team struggle to hold it together and fulfill their grizzly task.
East has never left LA before and the entire journey is a massive awakening for him as he discovers that there is more to life than gang culture and violence. Yet, with the presence of his companions, it seems as if East has managed to drag the worst aspects of Compton with him across the countryside.
Michael decides to detour to Las Vegas on what he claims is a team-building exercise. It is only the violent intervention of Ty that prevents the mission from being derailed almost before they start. East is fast losing patience with Michael and his leadership, and it comes to a head when Michael picks up a young hitchhiker with a view to having group sex with her. As East puts her out of the vehicle, Michael decides to beat the lining out of the young boy, 5 years his junior. Again, it’s Ty who steps in and forces Michael to stop and then leave the group in shame.
As the expedition progresses, we get to learn more about the personalities of the boys. We also get insight into the complex relationship between East, who is a reluctant gang member not prone to extreme violence, and his younger brother, Ty, who embraces gang culture and has become a cold-blooded killer. Walter manages to act as the mediating voice between the two. But it doesn’t last.
The team eventually make it to rural Wisconsin and locate the judge’s home. It’s there that events take a turn for the worst and relations between Ty and East break down. The judge dies, shot down by the 13-year-old gunman, but so does the Judge’s daughter. East sadly realizes that Ty is uncontrollable and will kill anyone he desires. As they make their escape, bad luck follows them. It all culminates with Ty being shot as Walter and East try desperately to avoid the cops.
Eventually Walter makes it back to LA. But East has other ideas. The thought of returning to the violence of Compton sickens him, and so he sets off in another direction both figuratively and literally. He’s searching, but he doesn’t yet know what for. His travels take him to Stone Cottage, Ohio where he finds employment with Perry who runs a paintball range. East takes to the work like a Compton duck to water as he progressively finds himself running the show there.
But Perry is not a well man and East’s respite from the trials of life may not last forever. There is also the problem of his violent past catching up with him. The gangsters of Compton, it seems, have long memories and longer arms.
Dodgers is a perfectly paced slice of Americana. It is already being rightly hailed as a classic. The interplay between the young men is all too real and the dark depictions of the underbelly of US society rings sadly true. The reader is thrust into a fascinating and turbulent world of gang culture, and treated to the understanding that not all gang members are terrible people. Many are just trying to survive. Some, like East, have a conscience. Some, like Ty, do not.
East is a noble character, caught in a maelstrom of need, loyalties and violence. He tries to be a good person, even though he is surrounded by wrongdoing. He tries to be free of the world of crime, but fate can be a fickle master and East is consistently blocked in his efforts to better himself and improve his life. It’s a dynamic that will be recognized the world over. Dodgers is a book you must read. It’s a road-trip with a difference. A thriller with lots of heart which serves as a sobering reminder of how tough life can be for those unfortunate enough to be born into bad circumstance. We might say, there but for the grace of god go we.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Top rate thriller that will hook and hold you from the very first passage. Highly recommended by Rebel Voice and all the more admirable as this is a debut novel from Bill Beverly. Let’s look forward to more.