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Rats In The Trees

Rats In The Trees is my first book -- written in 1989 and first published by John Daniel & Company of Santa Barbara, California in 1990 -- a collection of interrelated stories about street kids in Oakland, though mostly about Robby, a 13-year-old African-American boy from Fresno, California who runs away from an abusive foster home. Robby arrives in Oakland on a Greyhound bus, then, lost and alone in the city, he's befriended by an interracial "gang" of 12 and 13-year-olds with a united passion for skating, who call themselves The Animals.

The stories were originally "told stories" for kids at a West Oakland youth center where I worked at the time; and when I began to write them down I tried to keep that narrative flavor. The boys skate with the gear of the times, speak their own dialect of black and skate-punk, relate to a mix of rock and rap, defend their ground, and try to be kids while fighting to survive.

Rats In The Trees, while not pretending to be a documentary, portrays the conditions for many inner city kids in the U.S. during the late 1980's -- around the end of Ronald Regan's "trickle-down theory" and the beginning of George Bush's (King George The First) "kinder, gentler America" -- which was when crack-cocaine was starting to flood into mostly poor black neighborhoods, as if designed to bring down the people, and especially to destroy kids.

The times of happy black music of the late 1970s and early 80s were ending. So was the social-awareness and Brotherhood which had bonded, strengthened and sustained black people during the '60s and 70s. The break-dance era was over, and the brutal years of gangster rap, of self-hatred fostering black-on-black crime, and "guns, gangs, drugs and violence" were beginning as if in retaliation for that brief interlude of relative peace.

Robby and The Animals were old enough to remember the days when black people seemed united in a common cause of freedom and justice; and like most black kids at the time they knew they were losing something.

Sadly, all the predictions made in Rats have come true, the ever-increasing black-on-black crime, the "guns, gangs, drugs and violence" in U.S. inner cities, kids killing kids, and the shameful decline in the quality of public education.

It was also predicted in Rats that these things would move into white suburbia -- as Chuck (a character in Rats) said: "Coming soon to a neighborhood near YOU!"

School shootings were also mentioned in Rats.

Of course, much of the language and many of the expressions, as well as some attitudes toward certain types of people, have changed since 1989 -- or are at least masked by political-correctness these days -- but after reading this book judge for yourself if the U.S. has gotten kinder, gentler or any more enlightened since then despite all the political-correctness and Pollyanna lip-service given to equality.

Rats In The Trees received a PEN Josephine Miles Award in 1990, and was published in the U.K., Germany and Japan. It was also reprinted by Viking in the U.S.

The stories were originally "stand-alone" stories, and several were published on their own in the U.S. and abroad. I have done some editing in the Kindle edition where there were repetitive descriptions of characters and settings. The Kindle Edition includes an extra story and additional material not available in print editions, as well as a foreward.

In case you're wondering, I built my first board (which I still have) at age thirteen, as did many kids of my generation, from a piece of plank fence with steel roller-skate wheels -- an atom of gravel on a sidewalk was usually an instant face-plant -- and was still skating daily into my late 40s. My last board, which I also still have, was ridden by Gordon in the Way Past Cool film.

Jess Mowry - 2011


Some Reviews

Oakland flavored through and through, these wayward stories by a new writer, who actually sees and hears the street life around him, quiver with real life. They breath, walk, strut, spin, cry and laugh. But above all, Mowry's people hope against hoplesness. Readers weary of the hassle-free narcissistic creative writing that has become the hallmark of recent fiction will find themselves in the hands of a natural storyteller with something deep, meaningful, and moving to say about the way we live now.

Al Young

Grim and gritty
A quick trip on BART -- and a world away -- are the streets of Oakland. They're the real subject of Jess Mowry's first book, "Rats In The Trees", although the protagonist is a 13-year-old runaway named Robby, who arrives in Oakland with his skateboard and a few dollars and immediately falls in with a gang of friends who call themselves "The Animals". Through a series of connected stories they skateboard, hang out, and wonder whether it's worth the free six-pack of beer to let a "perv" pick them up. The stories are grim, gritty and utterly real, as they should be -- Mowry counsels children in Oakland. He also still skateboards -- "eight to ten miles a day, and not because I'm trying to prove something, but because I like it" -- and once lived the life of the streets. "I guess I was a normal happy street kid", he writes. "When you grow up in a certain place, everything there is 'normal' and everyday, no matter what people raised in Pacifica or Santa Cruz might think". The writing began in earnest when "I bought this Royal typewriter at a school auction last July for 10 dollars... one of the kids gave me a copy of 'Fiction Writers Market.' I know better than to ask how he got it.

San Jose Mercury News July 22, 1990

Jess Mowry, who lives in Oakland, California, gives the of readers Rats In The Trees a modern-day story of tragedy and misguided fate. As a counselor to inner-city boys, he is able to capture not only their speech and their sense of hopelessness, of creating their own world where they can be more than what the "squids", or middle-class world thinks they are -- losers. And while these stories are presented as fiction, the character of Nathaniel, an aging skateboarder turned live-in counselor, seems close to Mowry's own story. In nine related tales, Mowry tells the short story of Robbie, a thirteen-year-old black runaway from Fresno who ends up in Oakland and is taken in by the Animals, a small street gang with their own rules and passion -- skateboarding. In these stories, the dignity and need for acceptance sought by these eight to fourteen-year-olds is examined through their complex society, replete with its own language and code of ethics. While the description of kids killing kids with Uzis and .45s may be hard to take, Mowry makes his audience read on, not out of pity, but out of respect and fascination. The starkness of style and the absence of condescension make these stories work and convey the newspaper headlines of "Kid Kills Kid" in a way unlike any other. These stories need to be read and pondered while the possible loss of part of an entire generation becomes more and more of a reality if the newspapers and television news can be believed.

Marianna Hofer -- The University of Findlay, Findlay, OH

Mowry's first book at once saddens, overwhelms and charms as it explores a realm unto itself -- urban gangs. A youth counselor in Oakland, Calif., fluent in street language, the author delivers nine polished and interrelated short stories about Robby, a 13-year-old runaway who lands in Oakland with five dollars and a skateboard. He is befriended by the Animals, a gang of dangerous but nevertheless vulnerable youths. Mowry repeatedly demonstrates how uneasy frailties surface despite hard veneers: characters wash down Ding-Dongs with beer, swear in pig Latin or unsuccessfully try to mooch matches from a convenience store clerk even as they tote .45 pistols. The Animals accept violence, knowing they cannot avoid fighting a local tough in a gun battle considerably less glamorous than "anything on TV". Often these teens simply hang out and talk frankly, pondering the trivial of daily life as well as death and survival, wondering why "the world lies, man. 'Specially to kids."

Publishers Weekly, March 2, 1990

Rats In The Trees: Jess Mowry (Penguin, $9) ''Street'' literature too often degenerates into the obvious-preachy laments about soulless kids and their drug-wasted environment. So these short stories, which present a nuanced portrait of a prepubescent Oakland skate-punk gang, are all the more devastating for their superficial casualness. Now being reissued after the success of Jess Mowry's 1992 novel, Way Past Cool, Rats treats normality both as an occasional incursion (''I hope all the shootin' get done before school start'') and as foundation: The Oakland kids perform the same cocky/frightened balancing act as the suburban ''squids'' they despise, only they do so in a place where it's easier to get an Uzi than a box of matches. As one youth counselor says, ''This ain't Sesame Street.'' But then again, Sesame Street isn't real. B+

Nisid Hajari -- Publishers Weeky, May 21, 1993