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My fourth book (third novel) Six Out Seven was actually written before Way Past Cool, though it's doubtful if it would have ever been published without the hype and "success" of Cool.
Six Out Seven was first published in the U.S. in hardcover by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (first image above) and also in the U.K. in trade-paper format.
Unlike Way Past Cool, which presented a view of black kids trapped in the inner city -- knowing there was probably a way out but too caught up in day-to-day survival to try to find it -- Six Out Seven dug deeper into the reasons why these kids have to live as they do -- the "self-cleaning oven" theory, the fact that gang-violence and kids killing kids is actually encouraged by certain segments of white U.S. society -- and that drugs are seldom brought into the U.S. and poured into the innercity by black people.
This, of course, is not what the white world in general wants to hear, so it isn't surprising that Six hasn't done as well as Cool in terms of sales, or that it's more popular with black readers than white.
The story is about Corbitt Wainwright, a 13-year-old boy from rural Mississippi, who lives a dirt-poor but relatively peaceful and happy life until forced by circumstance to flee to Oakland, California. It's basically a country-mouse/city-mouse kind of tale; and Corbitt hooks up with his Oakland counterpart, a boy named Lactameon. The story is told mostly through Corbitt, who is constantly questioning why black people are fighting and killing each other instead of coming together against their real oppressors and helping themselves.
Again, not what the white world wants to hear.
Six Out Seven was trashed by a reviewer at The Washington Post, who "exposed" the fact that my first novel (second book) Children Of The Night was published by a "Black-exploitation publisher," Holloway House.
Actually, and other than the sloppy mess they made during printing, I'm happy that Holloway published the book in low-cost format and got it into the 'hood.
Among other sins I apparently committed by writing Six Out Seven, I stand accused (by this reviewer) of writing "literature of degradation."
In his opinion I also "see blacks as noble savages, victims of white oppression with no responsibility for their own condition."
In addition, he also suggests that black people aren't qualified to write about themselves... this is better left to whitefolk, such as (again in his opinion) the author of Clockers, who have "more knowledge about (us) and a more accurate and less emotional point of view."
All this informed condemnation and erudite perception of black people, black books and who should be writing them came from a self-described "middle-aged white reviewer who has never hung with the homeboys."
I'd prefer to think he was simply a racist rather than imagine that someone so stupid would be writing for The Washington Post.
Anyway, despite the glowing enthusiasm at Farrar, Straus & Giroux after Way Past Cool -- "we will be doing many books together" -- I was promptly dumped because Six Out Seven didn't live up to their sales expectations... and probably because I didn't want to continue what would have amounted to re-writing Way Past Cool (gangs, guns, drugs and violence -- "literature of degradation") in various incarnations for evermore.
This was when I first began to realize that black books which are "just stories" and/or "stories for boys" don't get published.
This was also when I became aware that many reviewers not only don't read the books they review, but they also review the books they don't read with their own agenda, only trying to find things that reinforce their preconceived notions or opinions. ...Rather like junk science.
An example of this sort of agenda (or possibly just sloppy reading habits) was when a reviewer at a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper accused me of being "homophobic," both for using the term of speech, "homo" -- which as most people know is commonly used by adolescents, straight or not -- in Six Out Seven.
Not only that, but according to this careful reviewer my most unforgivable sin was making the "gay character" a villain.
Setting aside the fact that gay people have just as much right to be villains as anyone else, the real problem with this accusation is that, had this (I assume, white) reviewer actually read the book, he might have seen that there is no gay character in it.
The reviwer seemed unable to comprehend that the character, Sebastian (the "homo"), half-white, is confused by his racial, rather than his sexual identity.
Think about things like this next time you read a book review.
Dead Books Live In Low-Budget Movies Starring Their Readers: © 2004 by Patrick Neate
Opening scene: bookstore.
I don't have a copy of Six Out Seven by Jess Mowry. This is surprising and unfortunate. It's surprising because I know I had one six months ago when I last rearranged my bookcases. I guess I lent it to someone and it's now been casually appropriated. It's that kind of book. It's unfortunate because I've agreed to write an essay about it and the deadline's looming. I check Amazon.co.uk. They haven't got it. I check Amazon.com. They've got it but by the time the book is shipped from the States it'll be too late.
I must have owned at least a dozen copies of this book in the past. But I lent them out or gave them away: to the Chicago English Literature teacher who'd never heard of it but should've, to the teenage gangsta lite who could use the perspective, to the cute blonde who needed some convincing that I was both literate and down. Like I said, it's that kind of book.
I scan my addresses and find I've still got a few numbers. I make some calls. No joy. Every single lend or gift has been lent or given away. It's like I said.
The cute blonde doesn't remember who I am until I remind her about the book. She says, "Oh yeah. I love that book. I think I must have lent it to my ex." If I can't be remembered for a book I've written then I guess being remembered for a book I've given is not so bad.
Cut to: right now. I try a bookshop, one of the major chains' flagship London branches. This is desperation because bookshops terrify me. In my experience there are two kinds of writer: those who love bookshops and those who are terrified. In my experience there are two kinds of writer: the bipolar and the balanced. By my judgement, these two pairs of denominations map each other precisely.
I ask at the information desk. The assistant asks her computer. The assistant shakes her head, she tuts, she pulls faces. I suspect delivering bad news is the highlight of her day. She says, "We did have it but we don't have it. We can't order it. It's not being reprinted. It's a dead book."
I stare at her. Is she crazy? If Six Out Seven is dead then its protagonists--Corbitt, Tam and Ethan--must be dead too. So how come I could introduce them to you right now? If it's dead then why can I still hear its rhythms that pulse and roll and syncopate and crescendo? If it's dead then how come I know there's all these copies still in circulation in London, still being pumped around by the beating of the novel's heart?
"Excuse me?" This is the assistant. "Excuse me? But are you Patrick Neate?"
I say, "Yeah."
This doesn't happen much but it does happen. After all, this is a bookshop and I write books and, besides, my picture is in today's paper.
She says, "Since you're here, would you like to sign some stock?"
She asks the computer. The computer replies. She looks momentarily embarrassed. "Actually," she says. "We don't have much at the moment. We must be waiting on the warehouse. Maybe another time."
This is why bookshops terrify me. One day I'll walk into this shop and ask for something I wrote and another assistant who delights in delivering bad news will say, "Sorry. That's a dead book."
Cut to: montage of my teens. Three minutes or so. Soundtrack? "Don't Believe The Hype" by Public Enemy.
School. Yours truly studying hard, bent over a desk and then first hand up when the teacher asks a question. There's a spray can falling out of my rucksack. It's only for show. I was always going to be a writer, never a "writer."
Jump cut to: South London suburban station. Poised with spray can when British Rail employee appears. In his office he makes me a cup of tea while he calls the local plod shop. All I can think about is what my dad will say and I struggle to front thug.
Jump cut to: PE at Brixton Academy. Late '80s. S1Ws, Chuck and Flav... and me, awestruck. A white face bobbing up and down in a sea of blackness. Jump cut to: bus home from my private school; me tinkering with my vowels to avoid another kicking, knaiimean?
Jump cut to: a series of firsts. The first Jordans. The first De La album. The first pair of 1200s. The first and last outing as an emcee...
Cut to: early 20s. I want to write books, of course, but I have to earn a crust. I'm a hip hop journalist. I'm in the US every other week. I'm meeting my idols, the guys who got me through school and college. I'm too young to know the golden rule: never meet your heroes, they always disappoint.
Interview after interview, rappers chant the same mantra. Rappers say they keep it real, rappers say they represent, rappers say they do it for the love and then, overnight, the cheddar. Interviews have become the journalistic representation of the hip hop form: rappers take the best bits of archetypal interviews and loop them like a breakbeat. Rappers have nothing to say. Rappers are down but they think "literate" is a mysterious part of the female anatomy best ignored.
Cut to: mid 20s. I'm writing my first novel. I'm reading Six Out Seven. Check yours truly: voraciousness cubed.
A hip hop novel with shades of grey. A hip hop novel with a complex but coherent moral structure. A hip hop novel with epic pretensions and characters tall, broad, and deep enough to fulfil them. Corbitt Wainwright is just 13 years old but he fights to find the moral up and the moral down in zero gravity. Corbitt is a black kid in a crack house, haunted by his past (real and mythological) and daunted by his future (whether fated or chosen). Corbitt is a literary representation of why hip hop works. He is oh-so-specific in his alienation. But tell that to the kid on the London bus who changed his accent to dodge a beating; that kid right there with the spray can in his rucksack and 3 Feet High and Rising on his Walkman.
I say all this to a cute blonde who's come back to mind for who knows what. I'm trying to convince her that I'm literate and down but I've just finished this book and I'm supercharged and I suspect I'm coming off a little scary. I convince her to take my copy. I can't convince her to stay. She promises to read it. She doesn't promise to return my calls.
Cut to: last week. I'm driving back from Manchester with Charlie Dark: writer, DJ, producer, renaissance geezer... South London born and bred. I've never previously met anyone who read Six Out Seven except through me but Charlie did. Charlie has a gift for aphorism. He says, "That book is a key text for aging B-boys."
When I get home, I track down Jess Mowry on the web and I find an e-mail address. I don't write much; I just tell him about my conversation with Charlie and how much his book touched me. I don't want to say too much in case he replies and turns out to be disappointing. I'm running out of heroes and can't afford to lose another. He replies the very next day. He says, "Thank you! I needed that!" Now I kind of wish I'd written a little more. Then maybe Mr. Mowry would have explained why he "needed that." Why could he possibly have needed my approval?
Cut to: right now. I'm standing opposite the shop assistant. I want to say to her, who the hell does she think she is to describe Six Out Seven as a dead book? I want to tell her about my conversation with the cute blonde. I want to tell her about my conversation with Charlie. I want to tell her that this book will never die if I've got anything to do with it. I recall my e-mail from Mr. Mowry and I feel suddenly important as a reader. I like the feeling. In fact, I suspect I'll never be as important in the way I write as the way I read and that's OK.
I don't confront the shop assistant with all the reasons she's wrong. But I do say, "Six Out Seven by Jess Mowry. An amazing book. You should track it down."
She makes a note of it. She says, "Come back in a couple of weeks and sign some stock for us."
"Sure," I say. "No problem."
Patrick Neate lives in London and Zambia. He is the author of three novels, including The London Pigeon Wars and Where You're At, an anthology of hip-hop writing. In 2001 he won England's Whitbread Award. He has published articles in many leading music magazines, including The Face, Mixmag, and Time Out.
While reporting on the inner city, I've privately told friends that the situation reminds me of a modern-day and Americanized version of "Lord of the Flies". As unemployment and drugs overwhelm the adults in these communities, the children take over. The children provide (a form of) security via the gangs. The children bring home the paycheck by selling drugs. And it's the children who take care of the children. I met one boy who hid scraps from his dinner table to feed a friend whose mother was lost to heroin.
Jess Mowry has, with a chilling, even omnious voice, captured this disturbing would in his novel "Six Out Seven", a contemporary tale of growing up black and poor. The book follows the travels of 13-year-old Corbitt Wainwright, who spends much of his childhood making sure he doesn't lose it. After putting down this 510-page volume, I came to the realization that there is nary an adult who plays a significant role in any of the children's lives. It's not that parents of Mowry's characters aren't responsible and caring -- though there are those who remain absent not only from the book but also from their kids' lives. It's just that the children, most of whom are in their early teens, are confronted with adult worries, particularly racism and urban violence, at a tender and impressionable age.
The absence of adults in this riveting story symbolizes the spiritual loneliness of growing up poor and black. I'm reminded of what a 12-year-old boy once said to me: "I don't have any friends. I just have associates. Friends you trust". The sense that there are not many in whom you can put faith is part of being a child in today's ghetto. It is the tension of so much wanting to believe in others and yourself, yet constantly being let down that Mowry has captured so brilliantly.
From the book's beginning, Mowry challenges stereotypes. We first see Corbitt, who lives by a riverbank, watch as his father his bussed off to prison for a questionable crime against a hateful white farmer. Corbitt is in many ways a typical adolescent. His passions range from fishing to skateboarding, and he has a particular fondness for reading. He struggles with his sexuality as he develops a crush on a flirtatious neighbor girl and wrestles with having a best friend who happens to be white. But his world is slowly shaken, first by his father's run-in with the farmer and then by admonitions from the white proprietor of a truck stop who Corbitt had always thought friendly to blacks. The man pulls Corbitt aside one day to earnestly warn him to recognize his place in life, to keep his aspirations in check. At that point, Corbitt begins to confront the ugliness of the adult world.
In the second half of the book, Corbitt encounters the ugliness of a children's world that has been perverted by poverty and neglect. A violent event turns Corbitt's childhood on its head, and he runs away to Oakland, where he meets up with 'Tam, an overweight 13-year-old gang mascot, and Ethan, an 8-year-old wannabe. Just the bus ride from rural Mississippi to urban Oakland changes the way Corbitt conducts himself, and his arrival into an always-look-over-your-shoulder street life alters his view of others.
"Still, Corbitt learned, to avoid all eyes and never smile, and keep his head up and walk as if ready to fight. He supposed that was being cool... (but) it felt wrong to have to act this way, playing a part that didn't fit. If you played a part long enough would you begin to believe it yourself? Would Oakland be different because it was a black city? Maybe when black people were all together they wouldn't be cruel to each other? That at least seemed logical."
Of course this is Mowry's point: As if if weren't hard enough to grow up with white adults who prejudge you, the immediate enemy may be none other than your own community. Indeed, Corbitt, 'Tam and Ethan face associates no older than 13 who turn on them and each other with a horrid and frightening regularity. After watching a drug-addicted young boy gunned down in a drive-by shooting, Corbitt asks: "We is still called kids here, huh?"
Mowry paints a world that (may seem) even more violent and neglectful than it actually is, but maybe that is his intent, to write an Orwellian portrait of what will be if we don't act now, if we don't find a way to a restore a childhood to these children. Yes, I wanted to assure Corbitt, you are still called kids. (Perhaps it is the power of Mowry's storytelling that had me wishing I could converse with the characters.)
I must confess that I approached this book with some trepidation. Gangs. Drugs. Children. The inner city. They become quite faddish for authors and screenwriters, and frequently nothing new is added to the discourse. Of course, Mowry adds some authenticity: At 33 and the father of four, he remains a resident of West Oakland -- although after the success of his 1992 novel "Way Past Cool", he moved his family from an abandoned bus into an apartment. Mowry's writing, while raw and unpolished at times (the streetwise dialogue of the Oakland children is particularly hard to follow), is both vivid and courageous in its descriptions of inner-city life. More important, though, Mowry is a splendid storyteller whose tough, no-nonsense prose rouses me.
Corbitt's flirtations with his neighborhood friend, Sherry, made me smile. 'Tam's battle with and the acceptance of his weight (he insists that people call him what he is: fat) made me laugh. But it is Corbitt, 'Tam and Ethan's resourceful efforts to retain their childhood, to carve out a decent life for themselves, which left me both hopeful and angry. Hopeful that they're successful. Angry that we -- the adults -- have been of such little help. As Corbitt muses toward the end of the book: "Black kids could think; it was just too goddamn bad what the world gave them to think about".
Mowry has a bold an original literary voice which should be listened to. "Six Out Seven" captured my heart and ignited my fury.
© 1993 Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here - San Jose Mercury News, October 3, 1993
What the use in dreamin'?
The Reverend Jesse Jackson and novelist Jess Mowry have both confronted a perplexing modern truth.
"More black men die each year from guns than the total who died from lynching," Jackson has said, calling upon young African Americans to break the unwritten code of silence that prevents "snitching" on the bullies who plague inner cities.
Few characters in Mowry's powerful third novel, "Six Out Seven", are likely to heed Jackson's call. But Mowry does grapple angrily and honestly with the forces killing young black men; with individual and societal responsibility; with the complexities of modern racism, including drive-by shooters, who Mowry says, roam the inner cities "like the KKK's Afro-American auxiliary".
In its early chapters, "Six Out Seven" skillfully juxtaposes two parallel worlds that are destined to intersect. It opens with 13-year-old Corbitt Wainwright sitting in a tree, watching a "nothing-colored bus" haul his father -- a Gulf War veteran -- off to prison for beating a white child-molester.
Corbitt lives along a rural Mississippi river, in a village of old motor court cabins everyone calls Bridge-End. Every day, Corbitt hikes two miles across the steamy fields to Mr. Rudd's truck stop, where he washes the windshields of big-rigs and busses. When he's not working, he and his "best brothers" Lamar Sampson and Toby Barlow -- the only white boy in town -- live like modern Mark Twain kids, fishing, skateboarding and maybe smoking and drinking a bit as they talk out the confusing details of life.
These "jungle cats", as they call themselves, are wonderful characters -- children working their way up through the dreamy mist of innocence, searching for a meaningful next thing to cheat the nihilist nightmare that by all indications is their destiny.
Preternaturally wise at 13, Corbitt has never tried to get a real job, "because most everything he could do was already being done by grown men to feed their families". But he's also impatient with folks who only "do what's expected". He's been saving money, and now plans to offer Rudd a proposal: He'll set up a full-fledged truck-wash, and they'll split the profits 50-50.
Alas, Mowry masterfully kicks a reader's naive hope for a Horatio Alger tale out from under him, when Rudd -- one of the area's kindest white men -- lets Corbitt in on the philosophical underpinnings of his benevolence:
"You people are children, an' only a fool would hate children," Rudd says gently. "See, that's why you people always have such a miserable time in our cities. You just wasn't designed to understand complicated matters... When the goin' gets rough, y'all up an' blow your tops like frustrated children, an' break things. Your own things, likely as not, they way y'all done years past up there in Harlem, or Watts, or after that Rodney King trial."
Wounded, Corbitt brims with hatred for everyone white, including Toby. He angrily tries to squirm out of his own childhood, like a snake molting repellent skin.
Mowry's portrait of this rural southern town is so vivid that when Corbitt finally catches a Greyhound west to pursue a vague spiritual quest, the reader longs to return to Bridge-End, with its hypnotic river and warm, tight-knit community.
That's no wonder, since Corbitt's flight lands him in the scene Mowry's been painting in alternating chapters -- the ghetto of West Oakland. Here life tends to beat the childhood out of kids while they're still toddlers, the few adults in sight are smoked-out husks, and the enemy is as likely defined by the color of his bandanna as his skin color.
It's unlikely that an L.A. gang-banger will see much similarity to his Crip or Blood set in the skateboarding "Collectors" and "Leopards", the gangs Corbitt falls in with. But Mowry's Oakland cast is as compelling as his Mississippi crew, and anyone who's been an adolescent will glimpse themselves in these young men.
Mowry called his characters in his earlier book, "Way Past Cool", "Little Rascals With Uzis". That book gave him a reputation as a tough-guy writer. But Mowry's real strength comes from his soft side... When Mowry's story shows what's behind his characters' amorphous fury, the book throbs with awesome power.
In the world of "Six Out Seven", it is assumed that few outsiders know or care that economic injustice and racism's legacy have turned parts of America into storm drains brimming with pariah children. The kids know they're unwanted. One child's crayon drawing in a perfectly described shelter reads" "WHITEY HATES YOUR BLACK ASS AND WILL KILL YOU WITH CRACK".
Meanwhile, Mowry's cops dismiss the ghetto as a "self-cleaning oven", in which African Americans kill each other so efficiently that the white man is spared considerable effort.
Mowry knows the pervasiveness of such of such thinking among the dispossessed -- he may even buy into the prevailing conspiracy theories. But he doesn't back away from the underlying complexities. His character, Beamer, for instance, is a crack baby who now slings the stuff for an older black dealer. "Kids not wanted. Kids not happy. Kids do crack..." Beamer says, cluing in a young friend to the how's and why's of the business. "Some kids gots somethin' missin' out their eyes. I see that, know I gots me a sucka."
So it is that Corbitt's rite of passage makes him a warrior in a war more baffling than any inter-tribal or anti-colonial battle fought in the jungle or out on the veldt. He winds up fighting on two fronts. The only real victory comes when Corbitt embraces a one-eyed, dreadlocked, 8-year-old urchin who's been selling sex in the bus station. Corbitt helps him recover a bit of his childhood, thereby giving him a shot at someday becoming a man.
Before Corbitt left for Oakland, Bridge-End's wisest woman visited him in a vision:
"Gettin' your dreams stepped on an' your trust betrayed gotta be the most hurtinest thing in this life, son," she says. "But you can't never stop dreamin' nor givin' your trust where you believe. Stop dreamin' an' tryin' to trust, an' you start hatin'. First it the whites 'cause you figure you can't never trust none of 'em. But, pretty soon, you start hatin' your own color folks 'cause you figure they lettin' you down somehow... not tryin' hard enough, an' makin' you look no-account right along with 'em. An' then come the time when you begin hatin' your ownself, 'cause you only born a nigger so what the use in dreamin'."
On a grim inner-city street, a young gangster tells Corbitt he and a friend are thinking about sharing responsibility for a baby: "Ain't that a sort of African thing, man?" he asks. "Like the kids really belong to everbody?"
"If it ain't, it oughta be," says Corbitt.
With luck, Mowry's heartfelt, beautifully written book will make readers see that the kids he portrays are everyone's kids, and to let their dreams wither unnurtured is everyone's shame.
© 1993 Bob Sipchen - Los Angeles Times - November 7, 1993
To be young, black, lost and, maybe, found
News reports of inner-city African-American teenagers shooting and stabbing each other to death have become so commonplace as to be almost no news at all. We shake our heads, perhaps saddened, perhaps dumbfounded once again that this degree of child-on-child violence can occur in our cities; and we turn the page, we finish our coffee, we go to our jobs. William Faulkner once wrote: "The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that one hundred years later when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life." But what of life that is so brutal, so precarious and heartbreaking, that once held fixed by the artificial means of fiction, the art demands attention not in one hundred years but right now, before it is too late? One such work is Jess Mowry's deeply moving new novel of disenfranchised black youth, "Six Out Seven".
Mowry, author of a short story collection and two novels (one) the highly praised "Way Past Cool", split half of this narrative into two separate points-of-view. The first is seen through the eyes of Corbitt Wainwright, who is "so totally black that even other blacks made jokes about it. His smooth midnight skin seemed to absorb light instead of reflecting it. Like space. He might have looked delicate if he hadn't been so black". Corbitt lives in a small backwater town in rural Mississippi. His father has just been sent to prison for attacking a local white landowner for sexually molesting one of the neighborhood's children, and Corbitt now faces finding a way to help his unemployed mother support them both. Juxtaposed with Corbitt, in alternating chapters, we are introduced to Lactameon of West Oakland, Calif., a 350-pound 13-year-old who. 2000 miles west of Corbitt Wainwright, shares his love of books. In Lactameon's first scene, he is sitting against a tree in a trash-strewn park reading to his friend Beamer. Mowry shows us love and brotherhood and even innocence in this one moment held fixed, but then the boys begin to speak and it becomes all too clear that childlike innocence is a luxury these boys cannot afford. In a chilling and poignant exchange, Beamer laments being a crack baby and being slow because of it, unwanted, not cool. And, in the darkest of ironies, he admits his shame at being a crack dealer himself. Here Mowry reveals the novel's greatest asset, its vital and compelling dialogue:
Lactameon glanced at the sun. 'Yo! Cruise home with me, man. I make us up a whole fuckin' mess of Befaroni. Like, all you can eat.'
Beamer looked sad. 'Gots no time. Gots to work. I workin' right now 'cause it Sunday an' little kids be comin' in soon.'
Lactameon blew out a sigh. 'Shit, Beamer, you know what you doin' to them little suckers, don't ya? What I sayin' is, you know for a fact what it like with a fucked-up crack brain. Don't it make you sad to see 'em burnin' out theirs?"
Beamer replies that of course it makes him sad, but where else was he going to get money when "all them goddan kid-project things gots probs scorin' work for regular kids", never mind crack babies. This plaintive moan is the central thematic thrust of "Six Out Seven", that poor African-American children have few or no options available to them in this country.
In the chapters devoted to Corbitt Wainwright, we see the rural poverty in which he lives, but we are also shown a circle of caring adults. Except for Corbitt, all the children live with both their parents, and there is also the neighborhood wise-woman, Mrs. Griffin, a widow, midwife and church organist, who does not hesitate to wash any profane child's mouth out with soap. In witnessing this community, we never lose sight of the fact that Corbitt and his close childhood friends are still just that, children. But it is in the West Oakland passages, told primarily from kind and likable Lactameon's perspective, that we begin to forget these are children at all. Mowry is generous with his descriptive detail throughout, and soon we are awash in images that in a more just society would defy one another: hightop basketball shoes and concealed box knives; brightly colored skateboards and Uzi submachine guns; the bright eyes of a smiling child and the dead eyes of an 8-year-old crack addict.
Through a well-chronicled and utterly believable set of circumstances, Corbitt Wainwright takes a Greyhound bus to this "City of the Black", and here, in the final third of the book, peopled by many truly memorable characters, Mowry takes us through the deepest heart of ghetto gang life. As the story reaches its finely wrought dramatic peak, children begin to die violently, and when they do, as in the aftermath of this drive-by shooting, we see them as nothing but children:
"Blood had come out of his mouth but hadn't spread very far. It was already thickening in the heat. Corbitt scented the little-child smell of piss-wet jeans."
Carl Sandburg wrote that every child born is God's belief the world should go on. With this heartfelt and affecting novel, Jess Mowry convincingly suggests that some children are more welcome here than others.
© 1993 Andre Dubus III, author of The Cage Keeper and Other Stories and the novel Bluesman - The Boston Globe -November 7, 1993
From rural Mississippi to city gangs, boy pursues survival and manhood
Realistic. Violent. Sad. Humorous. Touching. Jess Mowry's novel is a remarkable tale about a black boy's coming of age.
Despite his intelligence and ambition, Corbitt Wainwright is frustrated and disheartened by the shackles of bigotry and racial injustice that exist in his small hometown of Bridge-end in rural Mississippi.
He watches brokenhearted as his father is taken away to prison for assault. His entrepreneurial spirit is crushed when dreams of running a truck-wash are trampled by the racist ideals of a well-meaning white businessman.
Finally, after a deadly encounter with another white man, the 13-year-old decides to run away and make it on his own.
We follow Corbitt as he flees the sanctuary of his tight-knit, though oppressed, Mississippi community for the promises of his "next-thing" - Oakland, Calif.
But in West Oakland, Corbitt finds himself in a whole new world, and one that offers everything but promise.
Two hours after he steps off a bus from Mississippi, he finds himself ducking bullets in a drive-by shooting and, when the smoke clears, staring into the dead, empty eyes of the gang bangers' young target.
This violent introduction is only a prelude to what lies in store for the man-child. But with some guidance from new pals - Lactameon, a hefty gang mascot, and a one-eyed street-smart kid named Ethan - Corbitt survives West Oakland's poverty, drugs, gangs, racism and bad cops and unwittingly moves on to his other "next-thing" - manhood.
Mowry's smooth, vivid prose beams the reader into Corbitt's dusty world along the riverbed in Mississippi. You can see the rickety bridge that solemnly stretches across the river and hear the boisterous and raspy "kaw" of the crows.
The dialect of the Southern characters is authentic.
"An just what color be God, Miz Griffin?" Corbitt asks his elderly neighbor in a dream.
"I always think myself He be like a kind of clear light. A color what ain't of this Earth. Maybe like silver-black," she responds.
In "Oaktown," as Corbitt's city comrades call West Oakland, the raunchy language and bloody criminality are just as absorbing and transforming and scary. Amid their cutthroat gangster existence, the rich cast of characters reveals a surprising simplicity in this candid look inside gang life.
Throughout Six Out Seven there is profanity, an awful lot of it. So sensitive eyes and ears beware.
But through Mowry's eloquent storytelling, laughing aloud comes easy, as do sympathy and pity for the underdogs, for the fallen or lost, even for the drug-dealing bad guys.
Mowry, who was born in Mississippi and raised in Oakland and whose other books include Way Past Cool, Children of the Night and Rats in the Trees, here produces an exciting, entertaining work of fiction.
Six Out Seven is definitely seven out of seven.
© 1994 Weta Payne - Houston Chronicle
Six Out Seven, by Jess Mowry
September 18, 1994|By Clarence Petersen. The Chicago Tribune/
Jess Mowry was born in Mississippi and raised in Oakland, California, where he lives now, and those are the settings for this remarkable novel. His ear is perfect, whether in reproducing the tone of a benevolent Southern bigot or the language of the young gangbangers of the Oakland ghetto.
The story moves slowly, at first switching between the protagonist, Corbet Wainwright, a black, 13-year-old, rural Mississippi boy with dreams and ambitions, whose father has been sent to prison for assaulting a white child molester, and the Oakland neighborhood to which Corbet will flee rather than face imprisonment, or worse, after his attempt to avenge what was done to his father. In Oakland he will join a youthful street gang called the Collectors. And that's where the story plays out.
It's a rude coming of age for Corbet. He is surrounded by desperation, hatred of all whites and of all policemen. It is a small neighborhood, but for the kids it is the universe; they dare not venture beyond its boundaries. The characters are sharply drawn and the relationships complex. The language is hard and cynical: Death is a "dirt nap."
Mowry gives voice to the boys' frustrations, their sense of defeat, their victimization, their wildly improbable conspiracy theories, one being that whites are all in favor of black on black crime and cheer when another young brother is kicked, a gang euphemism for killed. Mowry tells us things we need to hear with a raw eloquence that both touches and enrages.