Following his release from a maximum-security prison, a black convicted murderer, Kevin Davis, adjusts to life in the mostly white New York suburbs.
In 1993, as former schoolteacher Donaldson was finishing his debut (The Ville), a critically praised, unsentimental look at Brownsville, Brooklyn—then the most dangerous neighborhood in America—he crossed paths with Davis, whose image was unwittingly featured on the book’s jacket. When detectives saw the cover, they recognized Davis as a suspect in a fatal shooting and subsequently tracked and arrested him. After carrying The Ville around for his six-year sentence, Davis, upon his release, called Donaldson and the two met in midtown Manhattan, so that Davis could share his history, hoping to collaborate on a book about himself. Of the 630,000 prisoners released each year in this country, half are black, and Donaldson felt Davis “might provide an unusual opportunity to write a story about that reentry into society.” Seeking a fresh start in Elmira, N.Y., Davis tried unsuccessfully for years to find employment, enduring regular brushes with the local police. He eventually settled down with a college-educated, white, single mother in her mid-20s, Karen. As a couple, Kevin and Karen shared an affectionate, sometimes violent relationship resulting in the birth of a daughter. After Karen agreed to Kevin’s suggestion that she hold drugs for someone in exchange for cash, she was arrested and sent to jail for two years. Under mounting stress, including Kevin’s continued unemployment and fathering a child with another woman, their union blew up, and Kevin was found guilty of assaulting her. In the spirit of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family (2003) a superb chronicle of life in the Bronx, Zebratown offers a deeply personal, unflinching portrayal of the struggle to reform and make good as a father, partner, worker and member of society. The book stands as a testament to this never-ending struggle, and it’s a grim, poignant, occasionally disconnected study of character and the hope of redemption.
Illuminating, but doesn’t quite come together as more than the sum of its parts.