Friday, April 21, 2017

The Book You Have to Read:
“Durango Street,” by Frank Bonham

(Editor’s note: This is the 147th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Wedged between the obsolete fairy tale of Little Black Sambo and the “say-it-loud” of Superfly, is Frank Bonham’s young-adult novel of the ghetto, Durango Street (1965). Originally published as Watts burned and Alabama freedom marchers were bludgeoned, these days Durango Street reads more like a well-meaning period piece rather than a sharp stick in the eye. But for many young white readers back in the day, it was their first glimpse of a gritty and poverty-stricken America they didn’t know existed. Still, half a century since its publication, Durango Street retains some sting.

Black teen Rufus Henry is home from the Pine Valley Honor Camp—a place old-school parents used to call reform school. Rufus is no angel, but he has plenty going for him. Intelligent, charismatic, a born leader with plenty of athletic ability, Rufus knows that if he doesn’t heed the admonishments of a cigar-chomping, cardboard cutout of a Coast City Police officer to “straighten up and fly right,” he’s bound for trouble.

The reality of living near the Durango Street Projects makes it necessary that Henry join a “fighting gang.” Without that protection, he is prey; but with it, he faces the huge chance of returning to crime and going to prison. Henry has few choices for positive behavior beyond working in the grime of a tire retread shop and his planned return to high school in the fall. His frustration at his no-win situation is expressed through irony, as he evinces a growing and more sophisticated method of processing his predicament: “What am I supposed to do?” he asks of his parole officer. “Join the Sea Scouts?”

Stalled at the crossroads of lawless adult and responsible adult, Rufus is aware he needs to make a decision. So he mans-up and thinks beyond the safety-in-numbers mentality of gang life, and the adults who mean well, and determines that he’s “been around long enough to know that the only person who could do anything about Rufus’ problem was Rufus.” But also, he’s aware that, for the time being, he’s trapped by his environment, and gang life is inescapable.

Rufus’ tentative return to the projects immediately heads south when his younger sister unwittingly gets him into trouble with a gang by talking to the police. The members of that gang—the Gassers—believe Rufus ratted them out. Now a wanted man, he has no choice but to seek protection from their rivals, the Moors. The beef eventually leads to war, and this reveals the depth of Henry’s ability to survive and rise. He usurps the Moors’ leader, Bantu, and guides members along the tricky route of avoiding the police, nosey social worker Alex Robbins, and various adversaries, while maintaining his pride, street code integrity—and the gang’s turf.

Gang life is self-destructive, and Rufus knows that “A gang has to be kept busy. Busy meant fighting.” He carries on his nimble negotiation of the mean streets, and while the violence between the Moors and the Gassers escalates, he succeeds in skirting the police because he believes he’s meant for greater things. Rufus carries with him a secret that has sustained his spirit in the darkest of times, and prevented him from entering thug life at full throttle. This hope for a better future is the Hail Mary dream of becoming a professional football player. He believes he has an entry into the sport beyond his natural athletic ability, and it started with a little white lie.

Years ago, in order to placate her over-curious young son, Rufus’ mother told him his that father was football star Ernie Brown, whom she had married when she was a young girl and then divorced. Raising the Cinderella story to a higher level of expectation and anticipation, is that Brown now plays for Coast City’s home team, the Marauders. Rufus’ expectation of a deus ex machina is tantalizing, but pulp writer Bonham is too seasoned to kill this book with an overdose of sugar. He knows irony is the bittersweet basis of life, and that introducing a glass slipper—or in this instance, a cleat—would imbue Durango Street with all the spit-in-your-eye of a Hallmark Hall of Fame television presentation. Fortunately, Rufus can roll with the punches.

In a moment of deep reflection, he observes how his mother’s cavalier lie served the purpose of keeping him safe, as he “carried Ernie around like a pistol, for protection.” At the novel’s end, Rufus is still not out of the woods, and further trouble entering mainstream life is anticipated. The attitude he shows toward authority may be irreverent up to this book’s final pages, but it’s hopeful and realistic to Rufus’ self. “These cats were always trying to rush you off to the nearest scoutmaster, just because you passed up a chance to get into trouble,” he thinks, after making the decision to avoid mayhem at the climax of Durango Street.

Californian Frank Bonham (1914-1988) was a prolific pulp writer with a highly polished prose style, which makes for a smooth and effortless read. He captures some of the nuances of speech inner-city youths of the 1960s used without sounding stereotypical or racist—or going completely indigenous as Twain did with Huckleberry Finn.

Gang violence continues to be an issue in the inner cities, even today, but another topic for young-adult authors has gained prominence in our politically charged time, that of racial bias and police brutality toward African Americans, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give (a phrase borrowed from Tupac Shakur), Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down, and the forthcoming Tyler Johnson Was Here, by Jay Coles, are some noteworthy recent titles along this line.

Finally, it might be asked how it’s possible that a novel about black teens could be written by a middle-aged white man and have any semblance of authenticity. In a lengthy postscript, Bonham gives a detailed shout-out to the police, social workers, and civil-rights leaders who aided him in his research and vetted this book for accuracy. That said, while the maxim, “Write what you know,” is perhaps the first thing writers learn in the game, another component is imagination. Perhaps even more important is empathy, which Bonham uses to great effect. Walking in another person’s shoes is a method more people should employ as a way of understanding their fellow citizen, their needs and concerns, and how one might behave in order to make this country live up to some of the principals on which it was founded.

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