A first collection depicting life in the black ghetto of Oakland, California, by a pseudonymous author who began writing it three years ago, when only 12 years old. Oakland novelist Jess Mowry, who has acted as ``Apollo's'' mentor, shepherded into book form the six vivid stories that comprise this auspicious, if awkward, debut. The stories, all dealing with the disillusionments and dangers of growing up black in the inner city, are essentially thin and unvaryingly predictable and sentimental. ``Four Wolves and a Panther'' tells of a lonely white kid, ignored by his family, who yearns to be black—and culminates in a ``surprise'' ending that won't surprise anybody. ``Jungle Game'' grafts an unbelievable plot onto a dreamy boy's willed identification with a black panther (a recurring image) abused by its keeper at the city zoo. Other pieces are similarly marred by hyperbole, though Apollo produces some gritty dramatic effects in two tales of teenagers lured into drug-related violence: ``Trash Walks'' and (especially) ``Bad Boyz,'' the latter of which hums with a surrealistic intensity that's briefly reminiscent of Richard Wright. Is there talent here? Absolutely—in Apollo's ability to move a story swiftly toward its conclusion, in sharp observations of his neighborhoods' blighted lunar landscapes, and in his precocious and obviously genuine obsession with important social issues and tensions. But his people aren't real yet: All his male protagonists are either grossly overweight or sleekly, gracefully muscular; his women are either nagging mothers or docile girlfriends; his white characters, with a single exception, racist imbeciles. This isn't what life is like; it's what life seems like to a sensitive preadolescent. Mowry was surely right to encourage Apollo to write fiction- -and Gloria Naylor was as surely wrong to include his work in her Best Short Stories by Black Writers. What this promising young writer needs now is, simply, more practice writing; less premature praise; and more stringent editing.
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