FIRST U.S. EDITION
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The blessing and the curse
It seems as if many writers have or will have one book for which they are remembered more than for any others, even though these may not have been their best books -- at least in the authors' opinions -- or the books they might have wanted to be remembered for.
For Ralph Ellison that book is unquestionably Invisible Man. For John Steinbeck probably The Grapes Of Wrath, and for Herman Hesse probably Steppenwolf.
I would never claim to be in the same league with these three great writers, but it seems that for me the book I will probably remembered for writing (assuming I'm remembered at all) is Way Past Cool.
It seems ironic that a book I wrote in about three months, and for black street kids, should have been so universally read, but there's a saying that most writers aren't good judges of their own work.
Just as musicians or actors may have one song or film that becomes their trademark, and sometimes even their identity as far as the general public is concerned, there is often one book that seems to personify an author; a work that may cast a living author into a role that he or she is expected to play for the rest of their lives.
Dead authors, too, but they can't bitch about it on this side of the grave.
This can be a blessing if a writer is happy with that role. Or, it can be a curse if the writer wants to write about other things.
For a black writer, being cast into a role, as well as his or her own willingness -- or unwillingness -- to play it, can often be the deciding factor in whether that writer will continue to have a career.
When I first began writing, it was my hope to write many different kinds of books for and about black people. One has only to check out the shelves of any black bookstore -- or the African-American Section of other stores, assuming they have one -- to see that the largest category of black books are non-fiction. If I had only one word to describe the selection of black books in most stores, I would say "dry."
Most of these works deal with black history, slavery, apartheid, the Black Diaspora, modern-day racial issues and things of this nature. Such books are good and necessary, of course, but there seems to be far too many of these kinds of books that basically say the same things.
Over and over again.
As to black fiction, one will see that black women writers outnumber black male writers at least ten-to-one; and the most common themes are either of a young girl growing up in the South, or in some poor Northern neighborhood, or that of a strong intelligent black woman who can't find a "decent" black man.
One will find relatively few works of fiction written by or for black males -- especially for young black males -- and almost none that I woud call "just stories"... few books about black men being ship captains, airplane pilots, or even truck drivers. Nor are there many "Tin-Tin" type books for young black males. The genre often described in the past as "stories for boys" is almost totally absent from black literature.
As a matter of fact, since Young-Adult publishers in the U.S. seem to be dancing down the road to extinction by publishing fewer and fewer "stories for boys." This is tragic if one accepts the statistics that supposedly 85% of males (of any color) in prison in the U.S. didn't have good male role-models or father figures in their lives.
And, while it is considered suicidally incorrect these days to criticize women, I think most of the blame for this dearth of "stories for boys" can be attributed to women editors in Young-Adult publishing.
It's sexist, or if you prefer, reverse sexist.
I realize I'm supposed to add a disclaimer and say something like I was brought up to respect women long before it became the correct thing to do, but I've found that people who are always looking for a reason to be offended only hear what they want to hear anyway.
If Young-Adult publishing is to survive in this country the people in charge -- no matter what sex or color -- need to get their heads out of their "nice" politically-correct Pollyanna and elitist Marie Antoinette asses and wake up to the fact that today's Beaver Cleaver is dancing in tented shorts on YouTube and freely discussing masturbation (get your attention?) and everything else from pollution to politics with his peers on the internet all over the world... among many other things that most Young-Adult editors refuse to acknowledge and thereby make their books irrelevant.
Anyway, what sort of people do many young black males have for role-models? What kind of male figures do they have to nurture their dreams and imaginations? Mostly sports and music figures. And, of course, gangstuhs, thugs and hustlers in TV and movies.
If there's a black Tin-Tin, Harry Potter or young Indiana Jones, I have yet to meet him in a book.
While I lay the blame primarily upon women editors -- including black women editors -- I also believe that a considerable portion can be attributed to black publishers for producing mostly "scholarly works" and non-fiction to "uplift the race," while ignoring what should be an obvious fact that no one will read scholarly works unless he or she develops an interest in reading in the first place.
And usually at a very young age.
In my experience, many black publishers, as well as members of the so-called Black Intelligensia -- which sometimes seems like a contradiction in terms -- seem to feel that reading fiction, even black fiction, is a waste of time for young black people. The attitude seems to be that young black people should read only black history and "essential literature."
This is a lot of elitist crap. It amounts to our elders turning their backs on black youth, and especially the needs of young black males. Take away the veneer of scholarly sophistication and it's no more than, "I got mine, nigger, you get yours."
This was glaringly apparent in a PBS special I took part in during the 1990s which was supposedly about young black males. I brought three young black males with me, but the old black suits would not let them speak. And, when I pointed this out, I was off-camera for the rest of the one-hour show... right along with the young black males.
Just as I am off-camera these days by not only continuing to point this out but also by letting them speak in my work.
Of course our young people should know their history and be aware of racism on all levels, as well as having a knowledge of the world around them. But they must also be entertained in positive ways, offered something to read that is not (at least not obviously) a lesson or a textbook, and be presented with role-models and dreams beyond the sports arena, recording studio, innercity... and yes, even beyond the halls of black academia.
I think it's accurate to say that there are many young black males who don't even realize that they could be ship captains, airplane pilots, or truck drivers, or have Tin-Tin type adventures for the simple reason that they've never been shown -- either in movies, on TV, or in books -- that they could indeed be or have any of these things.
And a lot more besides.
But, again, most black publishers are not publishing much fiction for and about young black males, and almost none that is "stories for boys."
Compounding this problem is the fact that white mainstream publishers will not publish black books that don't fit their preconceived notions and stereotypical images of how young black people -- especially young black males -- "should" act, aspire to, or even dream about. And too many white publishers feel that white people don't want to read books in which the characters just happen to be black but who are not drug-dealers, pimps, prisoners, or gangstuhs.
This is also crap, ignorant and racist as well as elitist -- most people of any color like reading stories about interesting characters -- but this fact is glaringly apparent in the genre of young-adult literature; and is probably a very good reason why so many young black people don't want to read. There is simply nothing to read... unless they want to read about sports or innercity life or the stereotypes that white publishers give them.
I once had a book rejected by a while woman editor on the grounds that she did not believe young back males could be "tender" toward each other.
I suggest that instead of listening to white publishers (as well as more than a few publishers of color) pat themselves on the backs and crow about how many "black books" they publish each year, one should take a good critical look at what kinds of books those actually are.
As with all my books and stories, Way Past Cool was written about a certain group of people -- in this case West Oakland kids in the early 1990s. Way Past Cool was only one of many stories I hoped to write and was never intended to be an example of how all black kids -- even all black innercity kids -- live and behave. The story is about two groups of 11 to 14-year-old boys who are tricked into fighting one another by a local drug-dealer who wants to move into their neighborhood. It was first published in the U.S. in 1992, in hardcover by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and hit the shelves about two weeks before the Rodney King rebellion... and I would be the first to admit that didn't hurt its sales.
The book went into several hardcover reprints with FSG in the U.S., then a trade-paper edition by Harper-Collins, and was also published in France, the U.K., Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Holland and Japan.
It was optioned three times for a film, the first time by Disney, Inc. -- who naturally wanted to Disnify it -- and was finally produced in the Fall of 1997, a production for which I co-wrote the screenplay.
There has also been a stage version written and musically-scored, but which has not yet been produced.
Way Past Cool then, has been both a blessing and a curse to me -- a blessing in that I was able to tell the truth and to show the world a view of how the U.S. treats these children -- but a curse in that I seem to be expected by mainstream publishers to write this kind of ghetto fiction for the rest of my life. And they don't want to publish anything of mine that is just stories for boys.
Toys 'N The Hood
A new novel depicts young gang life in Oakland.
Way Past Cool is Jess Mowry's 310-page tour guide through Oakland's gang scene, a somber, morbid, yet optimistic and non-judgemental look at how young teens survive in the inner city. Much like John Singleton's Boyz 'N The Hood, Mowry's novel focuses on the good and bad, breathing life into his characters and avoiding the stereotypes of gang culture frequently shown in the media. The novel deals with a gang called The Friends, who are trying to protect their 'hood from a rival gang called The Crew and a drug dealer named 'Deek'. Deek, and his feared bodyguard, Ty, are involved in a scheme to force The Friends and The Crew into letting Deek move his business into their 'hoods. The Friends ain't wit it so they form a plan to shut Deek down. Not to ruin the ending, but suffice to say that the book rushes towards a climax that's disturbing, beautfiful, thought-provoking, and unforgettable. Way Past Cool's only flaw is some of the dialogue spoken by its characters. Lines like "I gonna kill you!" are a little too stiff and unrealistic for "ghetto talk". But this minor flaw aside, the book compels as it weaves a web involving elements of socioeconomics, religion, race, police brutality, a slanted media, love, and senseless murder. A little hometown rap is thrown in by Too Short and Hammer. Jess Mowry's Way Past Cool is a fascinating and sad look at the gang scene and those it enslaves. Mowry, who once lived in an abandoned car with his family, emerges as the literary equilvilent of street reporters like Cube and The Geto Boys. Plans are already underway for a feature film, but don't sleep on the book.
RONIN RO - THE SOURCE - December 1992
Beautiful Letters And Fresh Speak
Way Past Cool is an avid reader's dream realized. Cool is colorful literature the caliber of Morrison's Song of Solomon, Killens' And Then We Heard The Thunder and Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk. It's the kind of book that you don't want to read on the bus because "oh shit" and intense laughter will slip out and the people on the bus will think you have lost your mind. The characters are so real that you can point them out as you travel. Cool was all this and more... It was New Jack City", "Boyz 'N The Hood", Mystic Moon Power, Native Son living in The Street -- walls rapidly enclosing. Boy-men in an ever illusive promiseland. The innovative style of Raymond Andrews. The Dis'ed/Enfranchised. A Janie-Teacake Love kinda Read. Still, to compare Cool to any of the above conjured memories as a disservice because Jess Mowry's style is his own,
You do not ease into this book: You are pulled in rapidly. Books spill out of backpacks as young boys search for guns amid notebooks and Twinkie wrappers, the latter the only indication of their youth. The beauty of Jess Mowry's style is that he balances entertainment and information. His vision and worldview is like some skyscraper tall enough to see everything and report all: "The morning breeze had given up, beaten back to the Bay by the reek of overflowing dumpsters, alleys slimed by the walking dead, fumes and smoke from wornout engines, leaking drainpipes, stopped-up sewers, and the sour sweat of too many people backed into too few corners."
I love the portraits of Black males in this book. I love the portraits of the people-- most of them are beautiful and divine. Like poet E. Ethelbert Miller, he writes convincingly in a variety of voices and gives breath and tongue to the voiceless. Mowry also shows the reader the complex history behind empty names we have given to profound entities like "gangs" and "drug dealers". Most importantly, Mowry gives us hope. None of the characters are beyond humanity and redemption. Witness this view of Black manhood that some would not have us see. Lyon responds to the friend who wonders about his gentleness: "So, what you really sayin' is, black dudes ain't s'pose to be gentle? ...Evan a bad-ass ole panther take time out to be gentle to his cubs, huh?"
It gets deeper because Mowry's vision never dims. If anything, his vision is always broad and daring. For all the people who have wondered about the detrimental effect of media such as television and magazines, you begin to see the harm of advertisements and songs seen simply asentertainment. "She was the kind of pure Black girl who would never appear in any McDonald's of Burger King commercial, or be pictured playing with Barbie dolls beside some blond child on TV."
Although Markita, this beautiful Black woman, may not seem beautiful because she does not measure up to some light-skinned standard of beauty, she is beautiful to Ty, a young henchman with a guilty conscience. Ty is taken with Markita's beauty. Here are his feelings about her skintone and breasts: "He thought first of Hershey's Kisses, but those were common candies."
The beauty and tender moments are rare, though. Hand-to-mouth survival tends to overshadow beauty and laughter. The Friends and Crew gangs (read surrogate, extended family structures) try to preserve their 'hood from drug dealer Deek. Though the children suffer and die daily, no one seems to care and no reienforcements are imminent. Even the police are corrupt and the only law is the code of the street. The "young' on the frontlines are the most prescient. Deek tells his bodyguard: "What your prob is, you born 'bout thirty years too late. Ain't no more panthers, man. Ain't nobody fightin' to make nuthin' better."
Some of the gang members and drug dealers inevitably kill one another over mock serious issues. Ty pulverizes a crack addict and takes him to church. In one of the most powerful scenes in Cool he dumps the bleeding man-child on the altar to the dismay of the churchgoers, who remain silent and complicit throughout the ordeal. "Reaching the velvet-draped table, he knocked the preacher's big Bible aside with a sweep of the gun barrel and laid the boy gently down. In no face did Ty find compassion, least of all in the preacher's..." A weary and hopeless Ty tells the congregation: "He the one dyin' for your sin, suckers!" Then: "Save him, niggers. That the onliest way to save yourself."
Brilliance is hard to explain, to make brief. There are many motifs and symbols that should be brought to light. Many elements that Mowry makes us witness-- hope among spectacles. When the gentle Lyon is gunned down everyone is concerned about Lyon's closest friend, Curtis. With all the maturity and understanding of an elder, Curtis tells them: "He in Jamaica now. I see him when I get there." In the background, if you listen closely, you can hear Sweet Honey in The Rock singing the dead are not under the earth.
If you only read one book this month, acquaint yourself with Jess Mowry's Way Past Cool. His writing is awesome and picturesque. Once you pick up the book, you will want to savor it. you will also want to discover more literature by this man.
Andrea M. Wren - TAKE FIVE - August 1992
From the opening scene of drive-by scare tactics to the inevitable violent climax, Way Past Cool, Jess Mowry's absorbing second novel, depicts a gritty world reminiscent of Claude Brown's 1965 book Manchild in the Promised Land. Told in a stark streetwise voice and set in Oakland, California, Cool revolves around rival teenage gangs, the Friends and the Crew, who suddenly find themselves deliberately set against each other by Deek, a scheming 16-year-old drug dealer. In many ways this confrontational plot line is painfully familiar, but Mowry makes compelling changes that add humanity and energy to his tale. In a genre characterized by one-dimensional thugs, Cool ops for complexity. Mowry, who claims firsthand experience of his subject, knows this is a world where bravado, brains and loyalty ensure survival.
ESSENCE - 1992
With the endless parade of books published each year, one prime danger for readers is that after awhile everything starts to sound alike. The lines of text passing by turn into an immeasurable blur, like the low murmur of voices at a party you didn't want to go to because you're tired and it's been a lousy week. Occasionally, though, a voice sticks out -- a voice so unique, so clear, so unusual, and perhaps so painful that it becomes unmistakably a voice one cannot ignore.
Jess Mowry has just such a voice, and his (second) novel, Way Past Cool, marks the debut of a major American writer.
Way Past Cool is the first -- perhaps the only -- novel of urban American black life in the '90's: the era of collapsed structures, lost dreams, dashed hopes, agonizing violence, and a level of rage that for white America is simply unfathomable.
Way Past Cool is the story of 9-year-old black boys who live alone in abandoned buildings, of young black women with terrible judgment and the babies to prove it, of lives that make you old by the time you graduate from high school, if you ever get that far.
This savage, heart-rending, and difficult novel stars Gordon, who at the age of 13, leads his own gang through the deadly city streets of Oakland. He carries a .22, has seen more people die than a Vietnam platoon leader, and can outswear a dozen sailors on a Subic Bay leave. Gordon is backed up by Lyon, a softspoken 14-year-old whose forays into mysticism have given him a spirituality that belies that fact that he'll blow your head off if he has to. Gordon's gang, know as the "Friends", live in a state of tense coexistence with "The Crew". The tenuous peace of the Oakland neighborhood is broken by Deek, a drug and gun dealer whose bodyguard, Ty, is trying to protect his own little brother from the street life. Deek is trying to sell guns to each faction in the hopes of escalating their turf rivalry into real war. On the sidelines sit the Oakland police. The ones that aren't actually on the take are just as happy to let the brothers kill each other off.
Throughout this story of despair, violence, and hopelessness, runs a thread of human feeling and power that prevails even over the awful conditions of the characters' lives. The connection between the members of the gang is one of survival, and of real people trying to meet emotional needs. These characters are violent, vulgar, perceived by most of society as a lost cause, yet there is something uniquely human about them. In a way that most of us will never understand, they love each other, and in each other they find hope.
"Furball coughed and spat blood on the floor," Mowry writes. "...somethin' busted inside me. I can feel it."
"'Your heart?' Lyon asked softly.
'Get real, sucker!' Furball coughed again. 'That got busted a long, long time ago!"
Jess Mowry is a long, long way from Richard Wright and James Baldwin; but his is the authentic and vibrant voice of the disenfranchised urban black American of the '90's. As the recent events in Los Angeles have shown, it is a voice that we all desperately need to listen to.
Steven Womack - THE NASHVILLE BANNER
OAKLAND, Calif. - At 3 o'clock most mornings, when stillness settles uneasily over this crime-ravaged city, a tapping of typewriter keys can be heard emanating from an abandoned bus sitting in a junkyard in an industrial section.
Once, the 1949 Greyhound was a home to Jess Mowry and his family, but these days it serves mostly as an office where Mr. Mowry painstakingly types out his novels and short stories, and fields calls daily on his cellular telephone from literary agents, press agents, Hollywood and journalists. (He bought the telephone only after his publisher begged him to.)
"I still don't quite believe what's happened," Mr. Mowry said of his sudden success with his (second) novel, Way Past Cool. Before this, he and his family lived off earnings from off jobs and collected cans.
The novel deals with the desperate world of inner-city youths. It is also a world in which Mr. Mowry has lived for most of his 33 years and refuses to forsake despite his recent accomplishments.
The first (hardcover) run of the novel was released last month with a respectable 15,000-copy printing. While Mr. Mowry has been offered $75,000.00 from Disney for the film rights, and awaits the outcome of Harper-Collin's bid for the paperback rights, he chose to turn down Ed Bradley of CBS for an interview, and refused $250,000.00 (from Disney) to write a screenplay based on the book. He also recently dismissed his literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra, who represents such best-selling authors as Amy Tan and Susan Faludi, basically for not sharing his point of view on business matters, he said.
"If all I cared about was money, it would have been way past cool," he said. Indeed, Mr. Mowry said he has given away a "sizable chunk" of his recent income to various charitable causes and to several families who wanted to move out of the impoverished area. He also moved his own family into a nearby apartment.
And in the tumultuous wake of the Rodney King verdict, Mr. Mowry, a seventh-grade drop-out, put his book signings on hold and all but abandoned his writing routine to reach out to the youths on his community's streets.
"Everything, including the book, was just trivial before this happened," said Mr. Mowry, a shy, polite man with craggy handsome features. He wants to reiterate to the youngsters what he has always told them, many of who are homeless or gang members. "When you're turning your guns on your sisters and brothers, you're doing what they want you to do." To Mr. Mowry, "they" is white society.
Mr. Mowry has devoted a good deal of time to giving support, advice, and at times shelter to youngsters who live on the front lines of ghetto violence. "It's ironic that I'm the only 'poor black person' they could find to interview," he said of his first television appearance on a "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour" program about the Los Angeles riots.
The children in the neighborhood have always been a source of inspiration and hope for him. "I write for the kids," said Mr. Mowry, who has four children of his own. "I've always felt the need to entertain, and then maybe put a message in there for kids. It sounds corny, but the message is, 'Instead of killing each other, love each other.' As stupid as it sounds, we can love our kids and (by doing so) learn to love each other. And quit being scared of each other."
Indeed, he says he is reluctant to move his own family out of the violent neighborhood because his presence helps protect the neighborhood children.
"I don't give tours of the ghetto," he said of his reluctance to give interviews. By the same token, he said, "I don't write for white people so they can cluck their tongues and say, 'How can they live like that?'
Way Past Cool, which Mr. Mowry wrote with the children literally reading over his shoulder, is about two gangs and their survival on the streets where they can get "drive-byed" any time, and those who don't dodge quickly enough end up taking "dirt naps". Amid the Uzi gunfire, bloodshed and despair, there is also unexpected humor, hope and a love story. These elements all fit into Mr. Mowry's scheme of things. "I believe in the power of the heart, but you also need a good gun (sometimes)," he said.
"There's nothing like this book," said Jonathan Galassi, the editor in chief of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who bought the manuscript as soon as he read it. "The immediacy of the presentation of the situation, and his gift of expression, is remarkable. There's a lot of originality to this book and it's about pressing issues. What makes it original is not so much what it's about but how he does it, his treatment, his writing talent and dramatic power."
Howard Junker, the editor of Zyzzyva, a San Francisco-based literary magazine that published Mr. Mowry's first short stories about four years ago, said: "His writing is very natural and raw, and he has a terrific ear for how people talk. He hears their lives in a sense, and his narrative is very strong. His sense of construction is naive, yet very powerful."
He added: "There was that kind of professionalism about him right from the beginning and that seriousness of purpose, much more than that alleged professionalism from people at writers' workshops. And that fierceness of what he was doing. Jess is not deterred by circumstances. He needs to do what he needs to do and he does it."
Mr. Mowry first got in touch with Mr. Junker, whom he still has not met even though the magazine is just across the bay, by letters he wrote in pencil. He said he sent a short story to the magazine because "nobody told me I couldn't do it". Shortly after, he bought an electric typewriter at a school auction, and began to write (other) stories, usually during the predawn hours. "It's about the only time it's quiet around here," he said.
He wrote in the bus on a metal desk with a light bulb shining overhead. During the day, he earned money from collecting cans and operating a crane or working as a mechanic. "We were never on Welfare," he said. (My dad despised the concept... a Black man doesn't beg... and passed that philosophy on to me.)
But even as a gun-toting teenager, Mr. Mowry had a voracious appetite for books, reading everything he could find, including mechanical manuals his father, a crane-operator, brought home.
Some of his short stories were collected in a book called Rats in the Trees, and published by a small press specializing in literary works, John Daniel & Co. in Santa Barbara, Calif. The book won the 1990 PEN-West Josephine Miles Award for new fiction.
Mr. Mowry's stories have appeared in about half a dozen small literary magazines, including one in Germany. Despite his extensive use of black street language and slang that becomes obsolete in six months, Way Past Cool will also be published in England, France, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany.
Mr. Mowry, at work on his (third) book, acknowledged that his life has been filled with incongruity. "That's just the way my life works," he said. "When things happen, they happen."
Julie Lew - THE NEW YORK TIMES - May 28, 1992